Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Shows the Real Danger of Echo Chambers


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Aliosha Barranco Lopez is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Bowdoin College. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the National Strategic Fellowship Network, which brings together scholars from across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every two weeks.

About 41 million Americans, or about 16% of the adult population, believe in QAnon conspiracy theories, according to a investigation of the Public Religion Research Institute. Some QAnon followers have claims that Russia’s recent attacks on Ukraine are part of a global effort to combat sex trafficking. QAnon supporters are unlikely to change their minds about Russia’s “real” motive for attacking Ukraine despite strong evidence against it. So how can we have a productive dialogue with them about what American policy should be in this conflict? This shows us the real danger of echo chambers: they prevent rational debates about policy-making.

Let’s focus on QAnon. QAnon followers believe different conspiracy theories which are endorsed by Q – an anonymous user who started the QAnon phenomenon. Most notoriously, they believe that an elite cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles controls the government and the media, and that Donald Trump will bring them to justice. Most QAnon subscribers do not accept evidence against these conspiracies duly taken into account.

The philosopher C. Thi Nguyen has Explain phenomena like this by appealing to echo chambers – communities that create a significant trust disparity between members and non-members of their communities. For QAnon followers, Q is trustworthy and people who challenge Q are untrustworthy. Of course, it makes sense that if untrustworthy strangers dispute Q’s claims, they won’t believe them.

But things are more complicated than that. Even when QAnon followers aren’t dealing with an outsider, they fail to adapt to evidence contradicting their beliefs. For example, some QAnon followers continued to believe that JFK Jr., who had been dead for over 20 years, would reappear last year even after he did not show up in downtown Dallas like they thought he would. How can they resist changing their minds even after receiving conclusive evidence that they were wrong?

I think the answer to this question is that echo chambers are not simply communities with strict relationships of trust and distrust. They are also places where our identities are transformed in ways that make it virtually impossible for us to change our minds. People in online echo chambers acquire a number of new beliefs about the type of people they and other members of their group are. A QAnon follower, for example, sees himself as part of the group of people who do things right, and those who are not part of this group are people who are wrong.

Yes, not all people who are part of social media groups develop this idea of ​​the world and of themselves. But certainly those who are part of an echo chamber like QAnon are developing this view. This explains why even when QAnon followers aren’t dealing with an outsider, they don’t adapt to evidence contradicting their beliefs. It would force them to accept that they are wrong, that they are not, after all, part of the group doing things right. Psychologically, it is extremely difficult.

QAnon followers are diverse, some of them have true power; they can make decisions that would affect us all. Worse still, QAnon is one of many echo chambers affecting both right-wingers and folks alike. left. As long as there are echo chambers, it is virtually impossible for their members to rationally update their beliefs.

There are two things we can do. On an individual level, if you react harshly to criticism against the beliefs you and your group hold, it could indicate that you are in an echo chamber. You must beware. On a collective level, our political parties must not ignore politicians who openly embrace the irrational beliefs of an echo chamber. Otherwise, we will soon be unable to have rational policy-making discussions, even in the cases that really matter – like in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.


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