It has become a platitude among journalists to refer to Internet communities as echo chambers that induce confirmation bias. In the good old days, goes the reasoning, everybody had to watch the same three network news and we were all on the same page, at least, with regard to the facts.
I am sorry but the proponents of the echo chamber hypothesis suffer from nostalgia. One need only to remember the turmoil over civil rights, the riots and police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, and the culture wars to realize that Americans did not agree about the facts any more back then than today
For example, millions of Americans remained convinced that Martin Luther King was a communist, no matter how long they stared at Walter Cronkite.
In 1960, the bigots went crazy when John F. Kennedy became President without the Internet. In 2008, the bigots went crazy because Barack Obama became President with the Internet. And in 1932, the bigots lost it when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President even though there was neither TV nor the Internet.
The media have little to do with it. The problem is rather that too many people in the United States have an authoritarian mindset and will not tolerate the loss of a democratic election. The sad reality is that they view their opponents as less than citizens and on occasion, i.e. the civil rights movement, as less than human. Those people are not susceptible to fact based arguments.
The echo chamber effect of the Internet is exaggerated as well. Internet Mormonism is a case in point.
It is true that a wide variety of Mormon communities have emerged on the Internet. From traditionalist heretics celebrating the Mormon temple cult to apologists rationalizing the faith, there are a wide variety of forums and message boards for Mormons of all flavors. There are Mormon mommies, Mormons who feel they were hurt by religion, Mormons who want to enjoy the community without subscribing to the dogma, Mormons who do not want to talk about politics and those who do. There are Mormons who want to protect each other from each other. There are smart Mormons and several flavors of feminist Mormons. Of course, there are edifying and uplifting Mormons. There is even a forum for Mormons who want to say, pardon me, F*ck.
The nice thing about the Internet is that all those people can now find each other. In part, that’s probably a function of space and numbers. There aren’t that many Mormons in the first place and if you want to have a discussion about the evil and virtue of the Mormon torture memo, you might be hard pressed to find people who are willing and capable to carry on an intelligent discussion about this and other topics in your local community.
That is especially true if you harbor any kind of doubt. There might be whispered assent in the hallway or the parking lot but Mormons quite effectively police each other face to face. The Internet connected not only rare Mormons but it allowed dissidents to remain anonymous and to form the Disaffected Mormon Underground.
For the first time since New Mormon History and Sunstone had been ostracized by Mormon authorities, dissenters found that they were not alone, that they enjoyed some protection from sanction, and that they could provide the benefits of community to each other.
Even though the brethren had initially succeeded in isolating Sunstone, the symposiums have now been rejuvenated by a generation of Internet Mormons whose theological outlook is more diverse than ever. I hear that there are even discussions whether this or that Mormon authority can be properly referred to as an SOB.
The one thing that Mormons have not been able to find on the Internet is echo chambers. No matter what your cause and outlook, other kind of Mormons would run in your forum and your blogs. They had to be warded off with sticks.
Had it merely been a matter of communications technology, the Internet would have produced the most diverse Mormon community imaginable. The preservation of unity actually required good old fashioned sanctions and prohibitions. Even so the Internet has produced the most diverse Brighamite communities ever.
As for the Disaffected Mormon Underground, that is being transformed by Facebook. Disaffected Mormons are increasingly out in the open. Most of us now post under our legal names and Mormons of all flavors are friending each. Despite occasional defriendings, I would say that Internet Mormons are self-confident and more connected than ever.