Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What is ... a Closed Ideology Echo Chamber?


A closed ideology echo chamber is a group or environment in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an enclosed system.

Most of these closed ideology systems rely heavily upon indoctrination and censorship to deny inhabitants the thinking skills and information necessary for them to "break out". Other common features of closed ideology environments include the identification of enemy ideologies, tribalism, the targeting of hate figures and the punishment of heretical thoughts and actions.

History


Closed ideologies have been around for Centuries. Many organised religions have acted as ruthless enforcers of closed ideologies, with outsiders such as heretics and apostates treated in unbelievably cruel and barbaric fashions. Throughout history religious hegemony has been a common feature of human society.

The rise of protestantism broke the hegemony of the Catholic church in Europe and opened the door to religious pluralism on the continent, and eventually to the rise of liberal secular values such as widespread tolerance of atheism and homosexuality. Although liberal ideas such as religious and sexual tolerance have spread across much of the world, religious hegemony survives in many places. Perhaps the most famous example is Saudi Arabia, where a fundamentalist Wahabi form of Islam is brutally enforced by the state. Many of the world's Islamist states can be seen as closed ideologies, however other religions can be just as brutal and intolerant. Another example is Uganda, where the Christian intolerance of homosexuality there has led to the enforcement of harsh anti-gay laws (death sentences for gay activities, and years of imprisonment for people who fail to notify the authorities of gay activity).

The 20th Century featured the rise of totalitarian political closed ideologies where dissenting opinion was repressed with brute force and concentration camps. The fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain and the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union are the obvious examples, but others include the brutal military dictatorships of South America and the McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunts in the United States.

Economics


The late 20th Century saw the rise of neoclassical economics which has become the global economic orthodoxy enforced by trans-national organisations (the IMF, World Bank OECD, European Central Bank) and American military power. Neoclassical economics bears many of the hallmarks of a closed ideology. It has core unquestionable beliefs (privatisation, deregulation, globalisation, tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, repression of wages and labour rights ...) and the neoclassical establishment has a track record of severely criticising and marginalising dissent. Most economics students know perfectly well that they are unlikely to get good highly paid financial sector jobs, tenure at their universities or articles published in the major economics journals unless they conform to the neoclassical way of doing things. Thus the field of economics has become ever more narrow, with heterodox economists pushed to the margins and routinely dismissed as cranks.

Lack of plurality within an environment or discipline is a strong indicator that it has become a closed ideology, and the field of economics is an excellent example of how this is a dangerous trend. The 2007-08 global financial sector insolvency crisis was caused by adherence to the core neoclassical belief that greater deregulation creates prosperity and stability. The banks were deregulated, they went on a spree of reckless speculation and outright fraud and they crashed the global economy. Mainstream economists didn't even see the crisis coming, and the minority of heterodox economists who were accurately predicting it before the crisis were contemptuously dismissed as scaremongering cranks by the neoclassical establishment.

After the neoclassical economic orthodoxy was completely invalidated by the financial sector bailouts (the biggest state subsidies in history), the neoclassical economists simply tinkered with a few of their ancillary beliefs in order to create a post hoc narrative to explain away the crisis without invalidating any of the core beliefs. Then they presented exactly the same policies that caused the crisis (privatisation, deregulation, globalisation, tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, repression of wages and labour rights ...) as the solution to the crisis, simply by rebranding them as "austerity".

Politics and the media


A good example of a closed ideology echo chamber is the House of Commons in Westminster, where the vast majority of politicians adhere to the neoclassical orthodoxy. The Tories have been pushing this right-wing economic agenda since the mid-1970s, the Liberal Democrats, who enabled the Tories back into power in 2010, are dominated by orange book neoliberals and even the Labour party has long since abandoned social democracy in favour of presenting Thatcherism-lite with a veneer of pseudo-socialist window dressing. There are very few genuine voices of dissent left in parliament, and despite their best efforts, their voices are usually drowned out by the huge majority of Thatcherite career politicians.

The mainstream media has become a closed ideology too, especially in the UK where the print media is absolutely dominated by seven news groups, which all present political and economic news from an orthodox neoclassical perspective. Some outlets are worse than others, but even the traditionally left-wing Guardian has taken to mindlessly regurgitating right-wing economic dogma and government soundbytes - a habit picked up through years of supporting New Labour after the party abandoned social democracy to embrace ideological right-wing economics with the ascension of Tony Blair and Gordon "PFI" Brown in the mid 1990s.

People might object to the idea that the mainstream media is a closed ideology by pointing out some obvious differences between the Guardian and the Daily Mail, however, most of these differences are over social policy, and when it comes to economic policies, neither paper takes a strong editorial line against government schemes such as the backdoor privatisation of the NHS, workfare forced labour schemes, "bedroom tax" or huge tax cuts for fracking operations. The Daily Mail may well propagandise in favour of these policies, but the Guardian certainly doesn't take an equally strong editorial stance against them.

The supposedly neutral BBC is just as bad. The most obvious example of this bias is the weekly Question Time show, which routinely features three representatives of the neoliberal Westminster parties, often a member of the neoliberal UKIP and usually someone from the corporate mainstream press. The composition of the panel of five guests is almost always five neoliberals, or four neoliberals and one dissenting voice. When dissenting voices are allowed on the show, the host David Dimbleby is often extremely hostile towards them, cutting them off mid-speech or allowing the other four guests to continually interrupt or rudely talk all over them.

Noam Chomsky summed up this problem with the mainstream media when he said that "the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum", which serves as an almost perfect description of BBC Question Time.

The Internet

The invention of the Internet was perhaps the most important advance in communication technology since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th Century. The Internet has allowed people to break out of the closed political ideologies presented to them by the mainstream press and the mainstream political parties. It has also unleashed a wave of ludicrous conspiracy theories, pornography and cat pictures too, but these things do not detract too much from the fact that it allows people like me to share my thoughts with thousands of people every day, without having to toe the editorial line of some corporate newspaper, or obey the party whip in some political party.

The freedom of communication that the Internet provides is clearly perceived as a threat by the establishment, hence David Cameron's introduction of a Chinese style Internet firewall, and the ever expanding scope of invasive mass surveillance programmes of the intelligence services. It's no wonder that the Daily Mail and the rest of the right-wing press propagandise in favour of Internet censorship, after all, their absolute domination of the media is as much under threat from an open pluralistic Internet as the political power of the establishment, if not even more so.


The Internet has been great for allowing people to break out of the closed ideologies presented by the mainstream media and the establishment political parties, but it is not immune from closed ideologies. The rise of Newspaper paywalls on the Internet is one example of people desperately trying to maintain their closed ideologies, even though it severely limits their advertising reach and profitability. Another much more insidious example of Internet based closed ideologies is the rise of the Facebook based closed ideology echo chamber.

The most obvious example of this Internet based closed ideology phenomena is the Britain First page, which is by far the biggest of several dozen similar extreme-right hate groups that are spreading like wildfire across Facebook. These pages have almost identical brand of rhetoric, which is a mash up of propaganda promoting extreme-right politics (Islamophobia, anti-immigration, xenophobia, anti-EU, anti-Human Rights, Christian extremism, misogyny, homophobia, appeals to patriotism, ethnic purity, anti-left, anti-liberal). 

   
One of the most infuriating things about these groups is the way that they endlessly harp on about how they are suffering censorship (because people dare to criticise them for the lies they tell) whilst routinely purging their pages of all critical comments and banning all dissenting voices from ever coming back.

It takes an incredible amount of hypocrisy to whine on and on about censorship, whilst routinely deleting every single non-conformist opinion from your page in order to create a pure closed ideology echo chamber.


Conclusion

Closed ideologies are part of human society and have been ever since records began. They are dangerous because they allow wrong-headed and often extremist ideas to flourish because they go unchallenged. Some of the most common traits of closed ideology echo chambers include lack of plurality, lack of debate, tribalism ("us and them" mentalities), censorship and the punishment of heretical thoughts or actions.

Although the Internet has opened up a plurality of unorthodox perspectives for those who are prepared to look for them, it has also created the opportunity for extremist groups to create closed ideology sink-holes to trap those who prefer nice simple environments free of discourse and debate, where they can have their opinions spoon fed to them and continually reinforced.

There's not much that can be done to confront closed ideology echo chambers like the Britain First page, because any attempt to engage them in debate will end up with you getting banned from the group and your comments eradicated. The best that anyone can hope to do is to point out the truth about these vile ideological traps, and hope that most people have the good sense not to fall into them.




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