Ismail Serageldin


Echo Chambers and the Vortex of Lies: Spirituality & Materialism in the Modern State


Echo Chambers and the Vortex of Lies[1]

Spirituality & Materialism in the Modern State


Ismail Serageldin





Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,


The Modern State is one where a very large number of human beings must co-exist.  As such, pluralism, the acceptance of the presence of many views and many communities, is necessary for the survival of such a society.  People have to collaborate with each other to develop a complex economy and to develop and adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances that a globalizing economy imposes on all of us.  Yet globalization has tended to encourage assertion and emphasis on the national and local components of our identities.


Religion is a dimension of these identities. Conventionally, it responds to the felt need of all people to go beyond the material aspects of their existence.  At its best, it inspires and helps us heed the calls of the better angels of our nature.


The power of organized religion has diminished in all modern societies.  The prevalence of the modern technology that has transformed our existence, and the inability of conventional institutionalized religious structures to renew their discourse, have resulted in a significant weakening of the power of institutionalized religion, for both good or evil.  The ritualized forms of religiosity are more akin to affirmations of belonging to particular communities rather than the fervent expression of faith that they were.


But a spiritual dimension remains central to all our lives.  For each person, there are many different external circumstances that make up the content of our earthly days.  Sometimes a transformative moment will shake us and help shape our inner life in significant ways.   Sometimes it is the slow action of the days that take a toll and make us look to the spiritual aspects of our existence to find meaning in our lives. 


Whatever it is, the spiritual domain is one that is largely personal.  It gets reinforced by a sense of communion and community with other like-minded people.  But in the end, it is not the result of organized religious activity sponsored by the state that will bring about inner meaning to the lives of many who search for significance beyond material success.  And they are many. 


The religious establishment, separated from the apparatus of the state, does indeed help many who want to find solace in its arms, and even more, some of its members have direct contacts with smaller communities that draw strength from their numbers and their common faith.  Great leaders can indeed send a message to a vast number of followers, but that will not necessarily result in specific political actions in a public realm dominated by the interplay of political and economic interests.


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen


I believe that it is not so much whether the religious establishments and leadership can use the tools of modern connectivity – they can.  We saw examples of that during the last generation in the use of telemarketing and other techniques by the commercialized televangelists in the USA, many of whom are certainly still active and adapting to the new tools and toys…  Rather, it seems to me that the discussion should be much more about the role of spirituality in the private and public space.  This should lead us to a more thoughtful discussion of the meaning of spirituality in the developing social context of a hyper-connected society where the whole issue of citizenship with its obligations and responsibilities as well as its rights and privileges is being somewhat neglected.  The state will provide the infrastructure for the expanding connectivity of all domains, secular and religious, material and spiritual.  How it is used will depend a lot on the social actors and the evolving constituencies and communities.



On Echo-Chambers and the Vortex of Lies:


Let me now turn to Echo-Chambers and the Vortex of Lies.  In choosing this rather provocative title for my intervention, I am purposely underlining that the vast availability of the endless possibilities afforded individuals to create communities on line and to create chat rooms and link up with others, as well as the unheard of scale of big data and new forms of analysis force us to confront how do these vast societal tools, that operate from the privacy of one’s bedroom, can impact individuals and manipulate them in their millions.  Today every taste, every whim, is catered to on the internet.  There are myriad chat rooms that one can join, endless new ones that one can create.  I believe that when it comes to political opinions or spiritual values, these chat rooms tend to function as echo-chambers which reinforce the participants’ views rather than expose them to new and alternative ideas.  Extremists also use these echo-chambers to their advantage.  They suck in the unwary or the lost into their grip, like sucking them into a Vortex of Lies, and then reinforce their poison through the echo-chamber in which the recruit has fallen.


Echo-Chambers are not new.  Long before the modern interconnectivity provided by the ICT revolution allowed us to create these virtual “echo-chambers” the equivalent of these echo-chambers existed in bygone societies.   They were crafted either by organized religion or by political parties or by ethnic and tribal affinities.  In the past they were clearly seen as the path to organize power and to strengthen the position of authority of those who controlled them and the discourse that they produced. 


Europe after its long history of politicized religious wars, church and state tensions till these two domains were largely separated in most modern western political systems, seems to have now banished the spiritual from the public sphere.  But that is not quite true, for the spiritual still exists and manifests itself differently.  After over 70 years of enforced atheism in Russia during the period of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church re-emerged almost unscathed from that ordeal, responding to a felt need in the population which was not nostalgic for past practices which they had not experienced, but because they craved a response to something within them. 


Looking at the history of the last century, where the tools of mass media were available for the first time on a large scale, we have seen the horrors that the crowds in hitherto “civilized society” could be driven to by a skillful mix of propaganda and political organization.  We saw the seduction of evil, the many who let themselves be sucked into that vortex of lies, who followed the path of least resistance… just go with the flow or at least say nothing …

The crowds, the numbers, the surge … the crowds become mobs… The drive and the drama of human passions unleashed, of human terror unbridled, of emotions unchecked.  Those who control the propaganda machine, the political echo-chamber, acquired and deployed their tyrannical power.  Nazism is a stark reminder of how unchecked such a mechanism can reach monstrous proportions, even with the limited tools of its period.  Today Da’ish is a stark reminder of how insidious an infinitely smaller number of people can be with the tools of the 21st century.  That is where the Vortex of Lies comes in.


The system with the extremists groups is different.  They have special persons whose function it is to engage and convince the chance encounter of a person with a mild expression of interest, a passing “hit” onto the groups’ websites and chat rooms, into a convinced member of the group.  They do so by patiently answering all their questions, hours and days on end, as they gradually feed them the ideology of the extremist group.  Invariably it implies that this group is the sole custodian of the truth, that they are on the right path, and all others are lost souls…they have the divine responsibility to improve society… those who oppose this – everyone who is not part of the group – are misguided, then they become enemies and then they have to be fought and from there to acts of murder and mayhem is but a step.  The innocent has been effectively sucked into the vortex of lies that allows the extremist groups to recruit and indoctrinate their members.


Echo-Chambers for both Good and Evil:


So both extremists and non-extremists use the new social media and expand their reach with the hyper-connectivity that modern technology makes possible.  Over time they both create virtual communities, were the reinforcement of the ideas of the groups functions through the echo-chambers that communities like to create.  But the non-extremists are much weaker because they are adaptable groups who do not try to form a specific ideology where their members congregate largely as a result of shared likes and dislikes from sports to restaurants to films, and maybe physical proximity at work or home which help provide a common background  and neighborhood interests.  


Can we get people to cross from one echo-chamber into another? Can we retrieve those who fell into the Vortex of Lies?


A recent scientific study[2] of  the impact of the new social media (done by scientists largely from Italy, I might add) found that the new social media resulted primarily in reinforcing a person’s views by providing links to people who think along similar lines and who believe in the same things.  They create an “echo chamber” where views are reinforced to the detriment of counter arguments.  


This is especially true of those who believe in conspiracy theories and who are particularly resistant to consider factual and scientific arguments to the contrary.  Thus “debunking” is particularly difficult and largely ineffective.  Arguments, even false arguments, that are presented in a form or narrative that fits with the overall posture of the group are far more likely to be accepted.


This rigorous scientific study examined the effectiveness of debunking through a quantitative analysis of 54 million users over a time span of five years (Jan 2010, Dec 2014), specifically comparing how users interact with proven (scientific) and unsubstantiated (conspiracy-like) information on Facebook in the US.  The scientists examined 47,780 debunking posts and found that attempts at debunking are largely ineffective. 


The findings confirm the existence of “echo chambers” where users interact primarily with other conspiracy-like pages. And they are very resistant to postings that differ from that overall perspective. They are especially resistant to posts that try to debunk the conspiracy-theory view that they have espoused.


It was noted that only a small fraction of usual consumers of unsubstantiated information interact with the posts. Furthermore, these tend to be the most committed conspiracy-believers and rather than internalizing debunking information, they often react to it negatively. The scientists go on to note that “Indeed, after interacting with debunking posts, users retain, or even increase, their engagement within the conspiracy echo chamber”.


So this does not augur well for our efforts to debunk the narrative of the extremist groups who invariably posit some form of conspiracy against the spiritual values that they represent and against the golden future they want to bring about.  The better course, the one more likely to bring results, is to be able to convince the youth, through intensive use of the social media that they favor using, before they are drawn into the vortex of lies and into the echo-chamber of the extremists.


Thus debunking extremist arguments is still necessary, and vigorous public debate is needed, but its primary effect will be to gradually expand the base of those who reject the extremist arguments and therefore do not join them, rather than successfully converting a large number of those who have already become sympathizers with the extremist narrative and its purported cause.


Conclusions:  Back to the Hyper-Connected Public Sphere:


What can we conclude from these preceding observations on echo-chambers and the vortex of lies?   It is that we must try to reach the disaffected, the unhappy, the marginalized and the victimized before they are sucked into that vortex of lies.  The lies that successfully seduce youth with an appeal to a higher cause then pulls them into the vortex of its ever deeper and narrower perspective that rejects all but those who share that same set of ideas and beliefs.  Once inside, even when confronted by evidence-based counter-arguments they will tend to reject them, as was demonstrated by that massive scientific study. 


Thus the many different echo chambers that cater to political, spiritual, religious, or social affinities ALL need to be strengthened so that fewer and fewer will be caught into the extremist vortex of lies.   That of course is back to pluralism, freedom of expression of multiple ideas and the range of issues and expressions of a society that values its diversity and recognizes it as a source of strength.


Here the public and spiritual domains must come into contact once again.  Not in the sense of the extremist version where the appeal is that it is a religious duty to change society, but rather that it is the power of citizenship in a plural society that allows each person to search for the spiritual in the manner that best suits them. 


The public sphere is where we maintain the rules and the system that allows us all these rights of freedom of expression and of association, and the political process in a pluralistic democracy is how we make it work.  The responsibility of citizenship, in a secular state, helps maintain the freedom to explore the spiritual in a private sphere.  Mixing the two pollutes the purity of the spiritual with the necessary give and take of political discourse and decisions making in a pluralistic public realm.  


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


I believe that the spiritual is more important than ever in a world where material well-being and the accumulation of all the trappings of wealth have become the measure of success in life.  Whether alone or in groups, we need to give attention to the voice within, to be able to hear the calls of the better angels of our nature.   This spirituality involves introspection, self-doubt, searching and ultimately finding inspiration not to blindly join or to quietly follow others.  And what is more to find that inspiration without falling into the trap of the arrogance of self-righteous isolation and the conceit of superiority.  There are those who will choose the path of mysticism, while others will choose the path of charitable engagement and social activism to express their spiritual values. That diversity is welcome.  It enriches society enormously.


The role of the state is to facilitate the contact between the people, to protect the variety of opinions ad manifestations that occur, except when they transgress into calls for hatred and violence against specific groups or against society at large.  For the state is but the tool of the people.  Remember, it is government of the people by the people for the people.


Thank you.






[1] Remarks delivered in Rome, Italy on the 28th of January 2016 In the seminar on “Addressing/Challenging Radicalization and Extremism with Interfaith Dialogue for Peace: What works?” At the session on “Interconnectivity and the global search for spirituality. What is society looking for and what is the role of the State?”

[2] See “Debunking in a World of Tribes” by Fabiana Zollo, Alessandro Bessil, Michela Del Vicario, Antonio Scalal, Guido Caldarelli, Louis Shekhtman, Shlomo Havlin, Walter Quattrociocchi; in Arxiv;  Accessed 15 01 2016.

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