A behaviour expert’s 3 suggestions to cut through echo chambers and win trust

Photo by Paul Bosch

The suggested actions are:

1. It’s not only about the story, but also the context around the story

2. Provide personalisation and control as part of your wider environment

3. Think about developing ‘a sub-brand of media’

About echo chambers

The existence of “echo chambers” is part of intense debate, and media reflection, following outcomes such as from the UK referendum and US presidential campaigns in 2016. Media echo chambers emerge when it reinforces personal beliefs and shut out opposing opinions. 

According to Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer, facts matter less and bias is the filter in echo chambers. “For the first time, this means ‘a person like yourself’ is now as credible of a source for information as a technical or academic expert… In this new world, the hierarchy of traditional (information) sources have been upended.”

In this environment, it is hard, if not near impossible, for media offering opposing views to cut through. We asked to Talya, a behaviour change expert, for her opinion, to get a different perspective on the matter. Talya did her post-doctoral studies with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman at Princeton University and taught at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an associate professor of marketing at the Ono Academic College and CEO of CureMyWay.

Of course, confirmation bias has always been around and is not unique to the digital world (it is “there even when you offer people reward for unbiased views”, according to Talya). However, the digital sphere “increasingly offers ‘echo chambers’ and people are far more likely to be hearing only like-minded others, repeatedly”. 

While “the real world is similar, to the degree that we choose to work and socialise with people who are similar to us,” the sheer scale and repetitiveness online increases the prevalence and hold. 

Moreover, with real and online worlds connected, it further feeds the hold. “If you only hang with hipsters, then this will dictate what you hear in the real world, feeding again into what you seek online.” 

Also at pay in these environments is the “spiral of silence”. “If no one around me voices a certain opinion or endorses an idea, I am less likely to state my support of the (differing) idea of opinion.” 

The one way to “mitigate against echo chambers is meeting and discussing with others of conflicting views”, something that is easier said than done. So here are three suggestions from Talya on what to do first.

1. It’s not only about the story, but also the context around the story

Talya does not have good news for journalists at a loss as to how they should break through bias and echo chambers to win the public trust. “Sadly, robust independent journalism per se does not cut it anymore. 

“If only because it takes mental effort to read such journalism, as well as to assess the robustness and quality of the work. In psychological terms, it’s referred to as persuasion through the central route – that of reason and essence, when most people prefer the peripheral, effortless route of assessing quality or truth. So if the reporter looks unshaved, then for sure he spent time in a war zone – why bother to check?” 

Talya suggests the solution lies not only in presenting readers with a message, but also to “make it very easy for them to discern the amount of effort and objectivity (the context around the actual process of journalism) that went into the story. Don’t expect them to deduce it on their own.”

2. Provide personalisation and control as part of your wider environment

We live in a connected world, where individual influencers play an important role. So, if people trust “a person like yourself” so much, should media emphasise breaking through to influentials even more than before, relying on the network to spread the message from there? A world where the individual, rather than media, is not the ultimate intermediary between message and audience?

“Similarity – or trusting ‘people like you’ is an easy means of persuasion,” says Talya. Easy in the sense that it does not require an evaluation of the actual quality of the message, only of its peripheral qualities. So, yes, having news or opinions delivered by people like me, is one way of doing this, but not the only way.

“Millennials, and many of us at this point, seek personalisation and control. Traditional media offers neither. Of course, delivering the news via an influential is one way of offering control and personalisation. But there can be others,” she explains. 

“Right now, for example, when I login to the NY Times website, I get the same pictures, headlines and stories as everyone else would. Even though I’ve been on it for decades, it doesn’t ‘know’ me and it offers neither personalisation nor the option for control. Other venues lend themselves more easily to both, and offer far greater ease of processing, which readers are growing accustomed to.”

While it is true that “personalisation can be perceived as potentially further increasing the ‘echo chamber’ effect, we can also use this to our advantage, creating mini ‘echo chambers’ within an outlet, so that each person can feel it’s ‘theirs’, but still within the parameters of the wider outlet,” according to Talya. 

In other words, giving the user what he or she wants first, while then exposing them in the broader environment to a wider range of views and opinion beyond.

3. Think about developing ‘a sub-brand of media’

To consider what can be done to develop better relationships and trust online, “you first have to understand what happens with trust offline. In my research, we examined how come most parents chose not to obey an FDA warning against giving cough and cold medication to their children under age two. Surely the parents want to do what’s best for their kids? And surely the parents trust the FDA? Well, yes to the former but not so much to the latter. 

“Parents trusted their paediatrician. Their level of trust of anyone else fell far behind – the FDA included. This was aligned with all that was known about trust – that it falls as the level of abstraction of the institution goes up. Institutions are faceless to consumers. 

“For lack of familiarity, consumers will trust a search engine, because if at least gives them the (illusionary) sense of control. In contrast, patients seem to trust doctors over health care institutions, possibly due to their personal relationship and direct interaction. 

“So why not offer these – online? If a personal story of a reporter – alongside the objective report, an informal Q&A with the reporter, or a colourful ‘behind the scenes’ help foster this sense of connection – go for it. 

“If you can’t beat them – join them. Consider it a sub-brand of the news media. Just like Armani came up with the more affordable Armani Exchange. It feeds off the brand reputation, but has a different vibe, thereby catering to the need for a venue that is ‘mine’, as opposed to what my stodgy boss is reading.”

These measures can “all be used to at least try and counter distrust online before putting inordinate effort into trying to find offline, real-world solutions.”

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