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Freezing Out Dissent

Echo Chambers Reinforce Beliefs on Politics of Global Warming, Research Finds

By Sara Gavin

Echo Chamber

Illustration by Jason Keisling

Illustration by Jason Keisling

Contentious climate politics continue to be influenced by the spread of scientific information inside “echo chambers”—social networks in which individuals with the same viewpoint share information with each other, according to a new study led by a UMD sociologist.

“Finding evidence of echo chambers in American climate politics proves that policy actors are not always getting the whole picture when it comes to information they receive about climate science,” said lead researcher Dana R. Fisher, professor of sociology and director of the Program for Society and the Environment. “Echo chambers can block progress toward a policy resolution related to climate change because individuals who have the same perspective and get information from the same sources are often under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective.”

Researchers surveyed active members of the U.S. climate policy network—members of Congress; leaders of non-government organizations and business and trade unions; and lobbyists—in the summer of 2010 about their attitudes toward climate science and climate policy, and questioned them about their policy network connections. The research team repeated the process in the summer of 2016 to determine whether echo chambers still existed and how they have changed.

The research was “collected during two very different time periods with respect to climate politics,” said Lorien Jasny with the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter, a co-investigator on the study and lead author of the paper published online Friday in PLOS ONE. While Congress was considering legislation aimed at regulating carbon dioxide emissions in 2010, the data collected in 2016 was after President Obama’s Clean Power Plan was halted by the US Supreme Court.

In an “echo,” two people who have the same outlook or opinion on a relevant issue share information, reinforcing what each already believes, and the “chamber” results when individuals hear information originating from one initial source through multiple channels. Fisher said this situation was not unique to either 2010 or 2016 but shifted its impact.

“In 2010, we found that echo chambers amplified divergence on certain issues—making it seem as if more people disagreed with scientific consensus related to the drivers of climate change,” Fisher said. “In 2016, however, we found that echo chambers worked in the opposite manner and amplified the level of agreement on these same topics.”

Fisher and the rest of the research team are currently examining how climate policy networks changed after the 2016 presidential election.

The study was funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the larger Climate Constituencies Project.



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