Echo Chambers among Experts of
This research project finds evidence of network diffusion among experts in the field of Chinese politics, who play increasingly important roles in our policy-making.
The Covid-19 pandemic showed us the prominent role that academic experts play in policy-making in our democracies. When governments are faced with complex decisions, in subject areas about which they know little, they rely on these experts to provide guidance and context.
Chinese politics is one such area, where there is an increasing knowledge deficit in the West, and as such, our governments frequently rely on the input of experts. Chinese students study abroad in the West, their diplomats are Western-educated, and they understand the complexities of our societies. In contrast, fewer students in the West study the Chinese language, they don’t study abroad in China, and high levels of censorship and security make it more difficult for us to understand exactly what is going on within China.
For all these reasons, the input of experts in Chinese politics into our policy-making processes is all the more important. Therefore, to be assured that these experts are giving accurate and unbiased advice is paramount. In this research, we have sought to investigate whether echo chambers exist in the networks of these Chinese political experts, which would undermine the advice they give to our governments.
We’ve all heard of echo chambers existing on social media, how we only see Tweets from people we agree with, but they can exist offline as well. We define echo chambers as having two features: first, the segregation of like-minded individuals into closed groups or ‘chambers’, and second, the ‘echo’ which relates to the repeating of shared information between individuals on a particular issue. In this study, we understand these closed groups to refer to groups of Chinese political experts, and the information refers to their analysis of Chinese politics.
This research project explores the potential for echo chambers to develop in a network of 134 self-identified experts in Chinese politics across three regions: Europe, Asia, and North America. Using a dataset of 26,688 blog publications from these experts, we used quantitative text analysis to examine whether authors write more positively or negatively about topics in Chinese politics and to what extent their sentiment is influenced by fellow experts.
We chose the three topics seen in the graph below based on criteria that would assist in identifying the networks we wanted to find. The Belt and Road Initiative, South China Seas Territorial Conflicts, and Ukraine & China are three increasingly relevant topics about which there is a lot of material. These topics also have many different viewpoints, meaning that there are opportunities for experts to agree and disagree, increasing the possibility of echo chambers existing.
To investigate whether echo chambers exist among these political experts, we aimed to establish whether there was a diffusion across how these experts wrote about different topics. We used sophisticated models to identify this diffusion and found strong evidence that it does in fact exist. The below graph shows the findings from our study. What we can clearly see is that a network diffusion of information does exist and that the strength of this diffusion is different depending on the network in question
Across each of our topics, we identified that diffusion is strongest when a European expert has written on a topic; that is to say, expert authors appeared to follow the sentiment of European-based authors regardless of their region, more than Asian or American-based authors. Our research found Asian-based authors to have the second strongest diffusion effect, while there was little noted for American authors.
Although this hasn’t provided solid proof that echo chambers exist among these groups, identifying this network diffusion is the first step in such a process. If no evidence of network diffusion was found, we could fairly confidently conclude that echo chambers did not exist in this case. However, a potential foundation for them could be indicated by the network diffusion that is clearly distinguishable in our research outcomes. Therefore, further research can develop on these findings and expand further, striving to identify echo chambers both in and out of political settings.
A recent controversy in Ireland has centred around the political ideology of economists. In a recent speech, the Irish President said that economists in the country were following the “neoliberal paradigm”, to which economists took offense. The President argued that this led to a narrow view of growth in terms of GDP. A study then showed Irish economists to be among the most ideologically biased in the world. Whether or not there is truth to these arguments, it clearly highlights the importance of a diversity of opinions among those who influence our policies in direct and indirect ways. This reaffirms our study of this topic in relation to Chinese political experts.
There is great importance in identifying echo chambers. They contribute to polarisation in society which has a broad range of negative consequences, including decreased trust in democratic institutions. Identifying and understanding echo chambers, and the environments that may foster their development, could assist governmental and societal institutions to prevent their negative impact.
Although our project was successful in indicating a prerequisite for the existence of echo chambers in expert author groups, there is room for expansion and a deeper look into the theory. Further work on this project would include analysing experts of additional regions and using our model to assess diffusion in a wider range of topics, such as climate change, environmental policy, and economic growth.
Christensen, Holst & Molander (2023): Expertise, Policy-making and Democracy: Leave it to the Experts?
Brown (2017): The True Deficit with China is not with Trade - But Knowledge. The Diplomat. 2nd Oct 2017.
Levy and Razin (2019): Echo Chambers and their Effects on Economic and Political Outcomes. Annual Review of Economics.
Leahy (2023): Senator defends President Michael D Higgins after economists disparage speech. The Irish Times. 30th April 2023.
Woods (2023): Irish economists rank amongst most ‘ideologically biased’ in the world, research shows. The Business Post. 3rd May 2023.
Barber & McCarty (2015): Causes and Consequences of Polarization. In N. Persily (Ed.), Solutions to Political Polarization in America.