Echo chambers and epistemic bubbles, and how to break through

Thi Nguyen’s essay Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. Nguyen argues that echo chambers are very different from what he calls “epistemic bubbles”, and that conflating the two concepts places our focus on the wrong solutions to the problem. In short, the difference is this:

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined.


Epistemic bubbles are easy to pop, because all it takes is to introduce previously unheard voices into it. Echo chambers, however, are extremely difficult to penetrate, because at its core lies the belief that everyone not in it is untrustworthy:

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders. In their book Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (2010), Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Frank Cappella offer a groundbreaking analysis of the phenomenon. For them, an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.

Or to put it even more succinctly:

An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

This is a long essay, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing. It was a real eye-opener for me.