Jazmin Wright | Cyber & Tech Fellow
Image credit: Camilo Jimenez via Unsplash.
The Indo-Pacific’s technological boom over the past two decades has enabled their rapid adoption of manufacturing, business, and information technologies. Most importantly however, it has led to the growth of communication and information-sharing technologies, including social media and messaging platforms.
These platforms have heightened the regional population’s access to information. However, increases in both the number of communication channels and the flow of information complicates people’s abilities to discern information accuracy and reliability. Such conditions elicit the formation of ‘digital echo chambers,’ and by extension the potential for misinformation to be spread.
An echo chamber is an environment where an individual only encounters information that reflects or reinforces one’s own opinion.The development of algorithms, particularly for social media, facilitates individuals’ ease of access to content in which they are most interested. Social media algorithms are tailored to an individual user based on how they engage with content (e.g., through likes and comments), and how much time is spent consuming the content. As the algorithm tracks the individual’s preferences, it limits their exposure to content that falls outside their views and interests, which can lead to the development of a digital echo chamber.
Concerning political and ideological content, digital echo chambers can restrict the viewer's exposure to diverse perspectives and information. In extreme cases, differing opinions and perspectives may never appear on the individual’s social media. It is also important to note that individuals can have a role in forming their own digital echo chamber. Individuals can unfollow accounts that disagree with their personal beliefs or that they consider unreliable sources of information.
The development of digital echo chambers has fuelled a dangerous trend of polarisation. Given the role of digital technologies, particularly social media, polarisation has been able to manifest in different forms. The first is ideological polarisation, wherein individuals disagree on political or ideological issues, and the second affective polarisation, which refers to individual's feelings about the opposing side on an issue. Both forms of polarisation are present on social media, particularly during elections or during times of political or social tension.
The 2022 Philippine Election
The May 2022 Philippine Election fostered an environment of intense polarisation, and widespread mis- and disinformation. This critical election saw the end of then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership , and fierce competition among political frontrunners Ferdinand Marcos Jr (also known as Bongbong Marcos) and Leni Robredo.
Above all, the Philippine elections showcased the influence that digital echo chambers can have on the outcome of an election. Contrary to previous elections, 2022 proceedings were primarily documented via digitised media, decentralising and shifting information sharing control away from traditional media sources. Consequently, candidates for the presidential position and their supporters relied on echo chambers to push political agendas and support campaigns.
Marcos Jr's winning 2022 election campaign was considered one of the most well-coordinated networks from the presidential race. In online spaces, Marcos Jr's supporters and community operated similarly to an echo chamber, whereby all contradictory content was actively drowned out with supportive online discourse. A central tool of Marcos Jr's campaign was his large presence on TikTok. In early 2022, TikTok had approximately 35 million users in the Philippines, and consequently, became a key platform for election-related videos to be consumed and created. Conversely, Robredo's online campaign utilised more neutral spaces to reach new groups of voters and garner widespread online support. The different approaches of the two election campaigns saw differing results, but ultimately, both demonstrated the role of and importance of social media. Overall, the 2022 Philippine Election highlights the impact of digital echo chambers and misinformation on individual and community voting perspectives.
The 2019 Indian Election
Another notable political process influenced by digital echo chambers was the 2019 Indian General Election. Online spaces, particularly WhatsApp, became a critical campaigning arena for the elections. In 2019, more than 300 million Indians actively used WhatsApp, demonstrating its importance and reach for political campaigning.. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waged a large-scale online campaign on the messaging platform, assisted by approximately 900,000 BJP activists and supporters on WhatsApp. BJP amassed individual voter data, and harnessed it to successfully launch targeted information campaigns via WhatsApp group messages. Ultimately, the Whatsapp campaign was instrumental to Janata’s electoral triumph.
Utilising WhatsApp was a strategic choice that went beyond the number of active users on the platform. As WhatsApp is a messaging platform, messages and information relating to the campaign fall beyond the view and operational scope of electoral authorities and independent fact-checkers, meaning information cannot be verified and misinformation can run rampant. Additionally, Whatsapp users can freely forward messages without contextual information, forcing recipients to blindly trust the sender’s information without confirmation of its accuracy. The 2019 Indian General Election not only demonstrates how influential online spaces can be in elections but emphasises the idea that digital echo chambers are becoming a new campaign arena for politics and social issues.
Implications of Digital Echo Chambers
The development of social media, and by extension digital echo chambers, create challenges for individuals and communities alike - particularly during periods of heightened political activity. Not only do they complicate the discernment of information accuracy, but further raise questions on the fairness and accuracy of entire elections.. While individuals can conduct their own research and fact-check the information they receive, true change requires community-level recognition of and action against digital echo chambers.
Digital echo chambers can erode internal stability and hinder a fair election process. Leaders and communities must act quickly to counter their rise and consequences before the offline environment suffers the consequences of a polarised online environment.
Jazmin Wright is the Cyber and Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs and is currently working in digital and technology risk. She is currently the Vice President at the Young Diplomats Society and the Editor-In-Chief at the Australia-Pacific Youth Dialogue.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.