Cults, echo chambers, epistemic bubbles, and kindness

I recently read a short piece in MIT Technology Review about how to talk with family or friends who are enmeshed in a cult or conspiracy theory.* I am fortunate that my friends and family are generally science-respecting people of reason. We tend to argue about details and strategies, not politics or facts. But many of my friends struggle with loved family members or longtime friends who they feel they’ve lost to conspiracies or cults.

The point that really stuck with me from the Technology Review piece, which relied on academic researchers and active members of the subreddit r/ChangeMyView, echoed something I’d read from Steven Hassan, an escapee from the Moonies cult who now devotes his life to studying cults and helping deprogram cult members: remind people of who they were. Who they’d been before joining the cult or getting drawing into the vast web of information that can be connected a million different ways as evidence of any theory that can be dreamt up. Don’t point out the differences; just keep connecting them back to their former self.

(The lure of conspiracy theories is one of the hundreds of reasons I am such an advocate for embodied, hands-on learning, especially in the sciences. We all benefit from remaining grounded in the real, physical world.)

This advice might not release someone from a cult or a conspiracy’s charm, but it probably can’t hurt, and it reminded me of an essay on Aeon that I probably send to people more than any other.

Escape the echo chamber,” by C. Thi Nguyen, details the differences between echo chambers and epistemic bubbles, most importantly how the latter protects members from outside information (like a cult), while the former filters all such information throw its chosen groupthink lens (like a conspiracy theory). “In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined,” Nguyen explains, using Rush Limbaugh as an example.

Nguyen makes the case that you can’t reach people in an echo chamber by trying to reason with them. All you can do is to keep providing a space or place for them to turn if they ever try to leave the echo chamber, and erode their trust in the echo chamber if it’s possible. Members within the chamber, cult, etc., find themselves quickly on the outs if they ever disagree with something the group says or believes in. For someone to take that risk, they have to have someone outside the group they can trust.

WhatsApp groups can evidently behave similarly, with members afraid to contradict groupthink belief. I’ve never used WhatsApp so don’t know the feel of the space, but have found myself on the wrong end of group norms in a Facebook group more than once. One conversation was about female writing mentors intertwined with criticism of older male writers (much of it valid criticism). I hazarded to say that all of my writing mentors had happened to be older men and I’d always found them willing to give supportive guidance when I asked. It was the wrong thing to say in a group that by that point disallowed almost anything good said about men. (I am all for down with the patriarchy, but maintain that the white patriarchy hurts everybody, including men. Who was it who said that before we teach boys to break girls, we first have to break the boys?)

It was a short lesson in groupthink that is too easily enabled by social media but that has likely always existed in humans in some form since we became self-conscious beings. The Moonies didn’t need a WhatsApp group to lose their independence of thought and action.

Nguyen’s essay and the Technology Review article are reminders that of the many ways to deal with these situations, the most effective are probably with compassion.

What’s interesting is that, for all the noise that thought leaders and mass media make about our society’s so-called divisiveness and polarization, you don’t have to look far to find people who are truly trying to understand one another, who make an effort to find common ground and build trust. Difficult conversations are happening all around you, right now, and people’s perspectives are always shifting; it’s just that you won’t generally see these efforts happening on public-facing platforms. They’re awkward and sometimes tense. But they’re happening because people don’t want to be polarized.

Perhaps the healthiest thing we can do for our society right now and into the future is to begin dismantling the fixed idea that deep divisiveness is what defines us. To act and speak from the belief that humans care about one another. Conspiracies dazzle far too many, and cults provide a sense of safety in an uncertain world. But believing that we are divided and that echo chambers provide no way out does nothing to serve us.

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*A friend recently pointed out that “conspiracy theory” is usually used derisively, and my neighbor stopped me mid-conversation last week to remind me that not all conspiracies are theories. She’s right—I enjoyed the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies, which details a pro-Soviet conspiracy high in the British government that was quite real—but I haven’t yet found replacement phrasing that more specifically describes belief in a far-fetched and improbable conspiracy that is most definitely not true. (Think Pizzagate.)