Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, discusses whether communication within vegan echo chambers (online spaces where most people is already vegan) is counterproductive and creates a lot of infighting — like the recent arguments about new plant-based options in traditional fast-food chains — or is a good thing for the vegan movement.
Many decades ago, I used to sing in choirs.
I started when I was a child, in the 1970s, as this was one of the many ways Catalans like myself managed to maintain the Catalan culture alive in Barcelona, despite the fascist regime of the Spanish General Franco trying to destroy it for 40 years with the brutal repressive persecution of our people. Although we were not allowed to sing publicly in Catalan, especially any traditional song which could be considered subversive by the authorities, we did it anyway — if we could keep the informers unaware of it, that is. Choirs became a political tool against the establishment — Welsh speakers may relate to this — so I joined several, and after Franco died, once I was a young adult, I ended up being the president of one (Coral Sant Vicenç de Mollet), and even a representative of the Catalan Federation of Choirs.
What has this to do with veganism? Well, I have often said that having grown up as a victim of oppression has made me understand better the oppression of other victims, such as the animals. But that’s not it. The relevance of my preamble is not to veganism, but to echo chambers. When one has become proficient in the art of choir singing, one knows how the acoustics of big cathedrals prone to echo can be both a curse and a blessing for a choir singer. For some songs, the echo helps to build body and power…for others, it completely messes up with the lyrics.
I wonder if something similar can be said about vegan echo chambers. With this I mean those online — or otherwise — spaces we tend to send our vegan mimes, gifs, jpegs, posts, comments, videos, speeches, talks, and other forms of messaging, which end up being seen mainly by vegans rather than the non-vegans who we might initially try to reach. It is a modern term already established in the media world, often mentioned as a negative thing as it suggests the message gets trapped in a closed system insulated from rebuttal and scrutiny, never reaching its intended destination and creating a self-reinforced false reality. They say that echo chambers fuel sectarianism, hinder healthy debate, and increase “preaching to the converted”. Some even say that they are dangerous. But, is it really that bad? I am not so sure. Let’s look into it.
The Plant-Based Fast-Food Chain Drama
In the last few years — and even more in the last few weeks — a drama has been unfolding in many social media platforms where vegans communicate with each other. Posts of someone saying how much they enjoyed the latest plant-based burger or chicken from any of the traditional fast-food chains experimenting now with some new veggie options (such as Burger King, McDonald’s or KFC) become triggers to arguments in the comments sections. These types of posts make some vegans criticise them for being supportive of the meat industry or not vegan enough, then other vegans respond criticising these comments for being negative and “holier-than-thou”, followed by other vegans criticise those for being “vegan apologists” or diluting the concept of veganism, and then other vegans criticise all the above for being intolerant and divisive. This dramatic response may eventually reach the site’s administrators who, most likely, will end up fuelling the flames with any action or inaction they choose to go with. And then the post will be copied elsewhere either repeating the triggering or triggering others for discussing this triggering. What is this drama all about?
I don’t want to mention here which specific posts, products, food chains or facts that justify some of the criticisms this refers to — because if I did, I would continue the triggering chain reaction — but I am sure I don’t need to as, if you are an ethical or dietary vegan, you probably have seen this sort of thing happening more and more. I certainly have an opinion about this issue which I have expressed elsewhere, but for the purpose of this article, the issue itself is kind of irrelevant. It’s the format that creates the drama. The format caused by the nature of the communication platform used, and the format used by vegans to communicate with each other. In other words, the echo chamber nature of social media and the lack of social media education of the people using it.
What type of physical structures become echo chambers? They are normally enclosed, very big, empty in the middle, and with walls that reflect sound, rather than absorb it. As I already mentioned, a big cathedral is a good example, but so it may be a big empty jet aeroplane hangar, a big terminal train station, or an enormous cavern. Echoing is a very well understood acoustic phenomenon. Airwaves travel unimpeded through the empty space of the chamber, bounce on the reflective wall surfaces, as the chamber is enclosed bounce back towards where the sound originates rather than dispersing outside and repeat the process in a positive feedback loop. We make a sound once, but we hear it repeated again and again, with a delay each time, and a decrease of intensity. We are all familiar with that.
A media echo chamber does the same, but not with acoustic waves, but with intelligible fast audio-visual information, and not because of the reflectiveness of physical walls, but because of the reflectiveness of the “sharing” properties of social media. In both cases, the chambers must be big. In both cases, they must be enclosed. And in both cases, they must be empty of absorbing or “distracting” objects. Not all social media platforms qualify for this, but some certainly do.
Facebook is one of the biggest social media platforms there is — if not the biggest — but after the initial years so much information ended up circulating in it that its founders decided to create some algorithms to decide who see what and when. Initially, these algorithms identified who are the friends and family you engaged the most, but as the size of Facebook kept growing, that was not enough. That is when Facebook groups came into being. These are kind of “clubs”, some public and some private, where like-minded people can communicate. They have admins and moderators creating the rules of such communication and monitoring them, and once you join a group, the algorithm may send to your wall (your private space in Facebook) posts from strangers that also joined it. For all intent and purposes, these groups are enclosed “chambers”, either because they are private groups you need to be accepted in and you can be kicked out, or because they are public groups, but the algorithm will only send posts to people of the group — even if outsiders can see the conversations. Big and enclosed make two of the echo chambers’ properties. The “sharing” function of Facebook is the bouncing property. The last one, the “emptiness in the middle”, is also there. These groups, for being “themed” and by having enforceable rules about what can be posted or not, are “empty” of distracting posts. There are many of these Facebook groups for vegans, and many have hundreds or even thousands of members. These, are fully fletched vegan echo chambers.
We also have particular communication apps (such as Parler or Gab) and other anti-social networks that can become even stronger echo chambers because they may be more enclosed and less regulated, using claims of “free speech” as their selling points — even if they sometimes may be run by propagandists or people with very particular political agendas, experts at manipulating masses. These more radical types of chambers often discourage people from using more mainstream platforms, keeping their audience captive — pun intended.
How Vegan Echo Chambers Work
If you are vegan, how many times have you heard a non-vegan using sentences such as “plants have feelings too”, “where do you get your protein?”, or “it’s the circle of life”? And you hear this often from random people or friends who do not know about biology, as if they had all gone to the same training camp where these cheap anti-vegan arguments are taught. Where did they all learn them? In carnist echo chambers.
We like to use media echo chambers because of confirmation bias, as we want to have our existing beliefs confirmed by others, and develop them further. In such chambers, a message about such beliefs is repeated often and then is amplified with all sorts of additional support (images, videos, etc.) which will help people remember them even after they leave such chambers. Then, they will use them in the real world, repeating them until they end up again in an echo chamber, where they will be amplified again and reinforced. After a while, like a viral infection that has become endemic in a population, the message gets embedded in the collective consciousness of the group following our particular belief, philosophy or ideology, not needing any echo chamber again to replicate.
This is how the major humanity’s myths were born and propagated. They may have initially started tenths of thousands of years ago in real echo chambers, like caverns, where the proverbial chief or shaman told imagined stories about spirits, gods or “the reasons of things”. They then generated all the common myths our societies live with — such as money, nation, patriarchy, gender, marriage, law, religion — as Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli vegan author, so eloquently put it in his book Sapiens: a Brief Story of Humankind — which has become embedded in our consciences and explains our ability to cooperate with strangers (who happen to believe in the same myths than us). Myths are ideas most people believe, which are not necessarily true but their veracity is irrelevant for the population (only interested in singing “the same song” than everyone else).
Vegan echo chambers work in the same way. The arguments most vegans use to defend veganism were also propagated in these chambers, and they also were carried by vegans in the real world where they kept replicating. If you are vegan, try to remember where you learnt any of the rebuttals you use to those carnist sentences I started this chapter with. You did not learn them at school, did you? You did not learn them from your parents, right? You learnt them in vegan echo chambers, in the form of social media spaces (such as Facebook or WhatsApp groups), vegan clubs you may have been part of or vegan YouTube channels you subscribe to. Most likely, you don’t even remember where you learn them –as you probably don’t remember where you learn the word “system” or the expression “that’s awesome”. This lack of knowledge of the provenance of concepts and ideas is what transforms theories into myths, as once you forget who taught you something, you no longer can check if the source is credible or not. Ideas that are said to be “common knowledge” may indeed be common, but they may not necessarily be true.
But messages created in media echo chambers, as with sound in physical ones, gradually fade with time if they are not reinforced again in the chambers and are not sufficiently spread. And when they fade, they are sometimes misunderstood. If you shout a word in an echo chamber and record the echo, if you separated the last repetition and played it to someone who wasn’t there, this person may not quite understand it and repeat it incorrectly — like in the children’s game Chinese whispers or telephone. This could happen in vegan echo chambers too. Once a message circulating in the chamber goes out in the real world, after being repeated for a while, it may start losing its meaning, and when it returns to the chambers to be amplified, it is no longer the original message, but a “new variant” of it. With time, the “mutated” message may keep mutating, until it is quite different from the original. The theory that ideas operate like biological genes, called meme theory, is not new. It was popularised in the 1970s by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, and there is a whole academic field called memetics that studies it. A meme is an idea, behaviour, style, icon, stereotype, image or concept that spreads from one person to another and multiplies in a cultural population, as a gene multiplies and spreads in a biological population.
I will give you a real example of a mutating meme I was directly involved with. In 2006 I undertook a series of trips to all the countries that still had a bullfighting industry. This involved nine countries (three in Europe and six in America), and the purpose of them was to investigate bullfighting, and to meet the local anti-bullfighting organisations so I could share tactics and strategies with them — and somehow internationalise and revitalise the movement. It was on one of these trips that I met Álvaro Munera. He was one of the local councillors of the city of Medellin, in Colombia, and he had a pro-animal agenda trying to promote animal protection policies. The interesting thing about him is that he used to be a bullfighter, and after a bull gored him and left him paralysed in a wheelchair, he “repented” and turned into an anti-bullfighting campaigner. Although Colombians knew about his dramatic story, most people in other countries did not, so I was the person who started explaining it to the world after I returned to the UK. I, therefore, created a new “meme”, the story of the repented bullfighter, who after being gored by a bull and pondering about his life during his rehabilitation therapy in the US, finally realised how wrong bullfighting was and decided to dedicate his life to abolish it. And the meme circulated wildly in the vegan and anti-bullfighting echo chambers.
After a few years working against bullfighting, I moved to other animal protection issues (such as hunting), but that meme kept circulating in the real world and mutating. At one point, it re-entered the vegan echo chambers as a new variant. A photo of a bullfighter in a bullring sitting on the side with his hand on his forehead — as he was worried, disturbed, and engaged in remorseful thinking — in front of a stabbed bull looking at him. And then a text saying this was Álvaro Munera in the very moment he “repented” during a bullfight. He wasn’t. In fact, the image was of another non-repented bullfighter “mocking” a dying bull. As part of their performance, bullfighters often struct funny postures, sometimes imitating statues — as in this case Rodin’s thinker — to show how “brave” and relaxed they are in front of a “dangerous” beast and to fuel the ridiculous idea that bullfighting is a form of art. Every time I saw this erroneous post on social media, I tried to explain in the comments that it was fake, even if Alvaro was real, but he was not the one in the photo and he did not “convert” as the post stated. But no matter how often I corrected it, the wrong meme kept circulating, as people kept sharing it. It’s still out there.
The Bad Effects of Vegan Echo Chambers
When you are in a physical echo chamber and someone makes a sound, very soon you will not be able to know who made it, as the sound will be coming from all directions. In a media echo chamber, this is a bad thing. Not knowing who said what, prevents you to scrutinise the source and finding out whether it is credible or not. This leads to a tendency of believing anything, to underestimate credence, and to disregard verifiable evidence. This is fertile soil for conspiracy theorists, who need echo chambers to promote their crazy ideas — as the real world does not help them.
A result of this is that whatever arguments to defend veganism are circulating in vegan echo chambers that do not come from facts, verifiable evidence or reputable sources, they end up being used by vegans in the real world, and carnist can then easily debunk them in their own echo chambers.
The memes that bounce in echo chambers operate as genes do under natural selection. The one that replicates more is the one that survives. Not the one that is true, but the one that replicates more. Reality is often much more complicated than most people think, so a good argument back up by evidence may be more complex than a simple one that looks and sounds better. For instance, we know that one of the problems of a vegan diet is that, if you don’t take the necessary precautions, over time you may develop a deficit of vitamin B12. If you take sufficient fortified food with B12 or B12 supplements, then the problem is gone, but the meme “vegans have all nutrients they need by just eating plants” is a much simpler message, that is likely to multiply more in vegan-echo chambers than the message reflecting the reality — even if backed up by science and reputable vegan physicians.
It is possible that the intensity of the drama mentioned earlier about the new plant-based options from fast-food chains may have to do with this. In vegan echo chambers, some people have been circulating the idea that vegans do not need to take B12 in their diet and that they can flourish in very strict fasting-type raw vegan diets based on just a few food ingredients. Like conspiracy theorists, they will make unsubstantiated health claims about such extreme diets and criticise those who question them as being part of the “corrupted system”. As they claim all this in the name of health, other vegans watching them may equate the proponents of these extreme diets with exaggerated health claims with anti-science conspiracy-type people, and, as a reaction, embrace the other extreme, the fast-food made by the kings of unhealthy food. They would go out of their way to show how much they enjoy unhealthy high-fat heavily processed salted vegan burgers, sausages and nuggets, to distance themselves from what they see as “health freaks”. And they will produce their own memes of the “I love McDonald’s” type and put them in vegan echo chambers, to the dismay of seasoned vegans — who have protested against this chain at each demonstration they have been and remember well the Mclibel trial — not believing what they are seeing.
Perhaps another important factor is simply that those who enthusiastically promote fast food meat substitutes in vegan echo chambers are just young vegans still transitioning into veganism, vegans whose indoctrination into carnism was particularly strong, plant-based people who do not subscribe to the philosophy of veganism, people addicted to particular unhealthy comfort food who have rationalised their feeding disorder, victims of marketing wizards that know which stimuli people fall for, people working for fast food companies trying to promote their new products, or even “agents provocateurs” trolling for kicks or more sinister reasons — unlikely, but you never know. The real world is complex, so the explanation of this phenomenon is likely to be too.
Another bad thing about vegan echo chambers is that being environments in which somebody encounters only opinions and beliefs similar to their own and does not have to consider alternatives, may “narrow” too much the view of veganism and make it less adaptable in the real world. As you can find more and more specialised vegan echo chambers for the different types of vegan identities that exist, and after some arguments their moderators can make them even narrower to avoid discussing topics that were proved divisive (such as vaccines, vegan cat food, or intersectionalism), if you only hang out in a few of these chambers you will end up having a very distorted opinion about who is part of the vegan community, and what is the “standard” way to react to vegan dilemmas — if there is such a thing. And the less you understand the diversity of the vegan universe, the less tolerant you will be to variations from your beliefs and “rules”, which may lead to more arguments and infighting.
Also, we should not forget that there are echo chambers for everything these days. And most of them are, implicitly, carnist echo chambers where anti-vegan messaging multiplies. When vegans, worn out of defending veganism out there, start to restrict their activities in closed systems insulated from rebuttal, this means that anti-vegan messages can circulate more freely with less opposition. Just think about this: how it is possible that we vegans do not pass the 10% of a population even in the most vegan-friendly countries when the health, environmental, ethical, and political arguments, facts and evidence supporting veganism are so strong? Because within the carnist echo chambers, the arguments against veganism are equally strong (remember that in these chambers “truth” has become irrelevant), and there are more carnist echo chambers, they are bigger, and they are supported with more people of power and authority.
When we, humans, only communicate with others through these chambers, we may get the wrong idea about what happens in the world. And if you only look at reality from inside these chambers, you could even become delusional and turn sociopathic — look at what caused the 2021 US Capitol riots!
If we, vegans, only communicate to other human beings through vegan echo chambers, we may think we are winning when we are not doing so yet. We may think there are more of us when we are still a very small minority. We may think we are having an impact on big corporations when perhaps they are having an impact on us. We may think that most of the products we use are vegan-friendly when many of them just happen to be good at hiding their vegan-unfriendliness from us. Vegan echo chambers can make us live in a bubble where everything looks fine enough, while outside trillions of animals are still exploited, abused and killed, and very few people are actually helping them.
The Good Effects of Vegan Echo Chambers
But not everything is bad. If used well and sensibly, vegan echo chambers can be very useful to spread the vegan message and become good educational platforms.
Although echo chambers can spread conspiracy theories and fake news, they can also spread knowledge of reality and factual truths. If we all become better at communicating on these platforms, we would be able to present the right messages in such a format that can compete with the most attractive “wrong” meme. If we create the habit of mentioning sources, adding links to fact-checked sites, avoiding exaggerations and simplifications, and being honest about what we know, and at the same time skilfully use audio-visual assets and talented creatives to make our message compelling, we can make the truth to bounce more and dominate the alternatives. If we learn to identify credible from non-credible sources, conspiracy theorists from rational thinkers, verified evidence from speculation, and build in all our messages more cross-cultural credibility, we can use our echo chambers more efficiently. We can amplify the vegan message and reach far many more people. And via the intersectional approach, we can learn which words and concepts trigger people from other cultures and communities to close their ears to anything we want to say — so we can improve our messaging making it trigger-proof.
Some of the memes circulating in vegan echo chambers are very impactful and can be the last push for someone becoming vegan or moving into activism. I know this for a fact because there is a particularly well-documented case about it. Professor Alex Lockwood, the author and Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, is a long term vegan who in his book The Pig in Thin Air explains what was that made him become an activist. It was a meme circulating in vegan echo chambers. An image of a pig jumping off a truck on its way to the slaughterhouse. He describes in detail the positive effect the image had on him, especially because it was not too graphic forcing him to look away. The image conveyed much more than what it explicitly showed, which is the hallmark of a good meme.
Considering that veganism is not taught in schools or universities yet, vegan echo chambers may be one of the few places where one can learn about veganism and its different facets. If you think about it, a school is also a kind of echo chamber where only particular information is allowed, and where it is repeated again and again for years till the pupils are free to go. There are, however, mechanisms designed to minimise the negative effects mentioned in the previous chapter. For instance, independent school boards scrutinising, only lessons approved by official fact-checkers, secularisation, phasing out boarding schools, updating diversity policies, training teachers on giving balanced lessons, etc. If we do the same with our vegan echo chambers, we can transform them into good education spaces where new vegans learn how to be vegan, which products are suitable for them, and how to deal with moral dilemmas and logistical problems.
There are several practical ways we can achieve that. One is to be sure we join many vegan echo chambers, not just one or two, as diverse as possible, so we can get a wider view of veganism and understand better its complexities. Then we need to ensure that we communicate with people in the real world — not only through these chambers — and that we regularly engage with non-vegans besides outreach attempts (including watching wild animals in the wild being content going along with their lives in Nature), so we don’t get trapped in a false sense of reality and understand how the world works and carnists think.
Another is to read more books and in-depth articles — like this one — and rely less on learning by watching gifs, one-lie images, tweets and ten-second videos, that always simplify too much reality and don’t give context (a good rule that I use is to never comment on a post based on an article without having read the article first — something that, unfortunately, is far too common).
Administrators of echo chambers can also improve them by striking the right balance between diversity of opinion, freedom of speech, safety from oppressive speech/trolling, and filtering out fake news and untrue information. I know, it sounds easier than it is, but if we take the role of administrator more seriously, and develop mechanisms for accountability and responsibility, the quality may improve.
I have my own rules of how to monitor comments in the social media posts on my own walls. For instance, if an antagonistic argument between two sides of opinion unfolds, I leave it there if each side has had up to three comments defending their position. After that, if the argument continues, I remove the post altogether (as opposed to deleting the extra comments), assuming the responsibility for the argument and preventing it from being spread.
I also have the policy to avoid interactions with clear racists, xenophobes, conspiracy theorists, homophobes, transphobes, anti-intersectionals, and misogynists — among others — and if I see any of my social media “friends” engaging in such behaviours, I will check their profile and posting to see if this is a one-off lapse of judgement, a slight tendency, or a real problem — and then I would act accordingly. We don’t want our vegan echo chambers to be too wide or too narrow. I think filtering membership is a legitimate tactic to improve them, but it must be done after due consideration, not based on visceral reactions. However, I am not averse to blocking obvious internet trolls to discourage this new unfortunate “profession” — which although may help some of the social media engagement stats, I think they have quite a toxic effect.
And there is something to be said about learning to communicate better online. Not long ago someone posted this question on Facebook: which subject you would like to be taught in schools that it is not? I replied: “how to communicate on social media”. I am learning to be more tolerant, polite, and equanimous when commenting on other people’s posts, even if they have triggered me. I force myself to use expressions such as “you may be right, but…”, “correct me if I am wrong”, “In my opinion”, “That’s interesting, but have you considered…” The format of our posts and comments is crucial to make them more readable, accessible, understood, and effective. In real life, we have plenty of instinctive facial expressions and body language that we use automatically to achieve this, but we do not have them when we communicate online — emojis only marginally help, and speech modes like sarcasm do not quite work in online written conversations. This explains the vicious circling of infighting, which is amplified in echo chambers. In real life, the same people that would be constantly arguing online would not be doing it seeing each other face to face while sipping a nice cup of tea on the terrace of a quaint vegan café.
We all — me included— should strive to learn to communicate better with each other, especially online. To tolerate better differences of opinion without confusing an issue. To talk more about what we do rather than criticise what others do. To respect different interpretations and perspectives within ethical veganism without changing its core meaning. To be patient with new vegans and vegan-curious people while being instructive and informative. Not to assume everyone has the same choices we had or that all cultures have the same views on animal issues, but to keep true to our values. Always thinking there are some vulnerable people out there and you should be considerate with them. Be generous with giving the benefit of the doubt and be kind even with the unkind. If we all try to do that (even knowing we will often fail because we are sometimes slaves to our emotions) we can turn down the heat of vegan echo chambers and made them more comfortable and productive.
Echo Chambers Are Just Spaces
In the end, vegan echo chambers are neither good nor bad by themselves, as rooms or buildings are not either. They are communication spaces made better or worse by those who run them and use them. We cannot blame the internet for the evils of humanity — as we could not blame TV, radio, cinema, newspapers, books, or writing.
The most important thing, though, is to understand what they are, and what they do. If we do that, there is no risk we will confuse them with reality. It’s like learning what a mirror is. If you have never seen one, and in consequence, you have never seen your image reflected, you may believe there is a whole new room on the other side, inhabited by other creatures. Once you know that is not the case, and the mirror just reflects light, then not only you can stop being confused and triggered by it, but you can use it for all sorts of things — plugging your eyebrows, shaving your moustache, illuminating a dark space, communicating between ships, and even looking deep into the origins of our universe. If it gets dirty, it may not work well, and we may need to clean it up. If it breaks, we must be careful as its pieces can cut us. If we leave it unattended, it can start a fire. Neither of these things is the mirror’s fault, but the fault of who looked after it.
As a choir singer many decades ago, I knew what to expect when we had to sing in a cathedral. We knew that songs written by composers who played in them during ecclesiastic rituals would work well. We knew that songs accompanied by organs will sound very good, and the audience would think we were one thousand celestial angels rather than one hundred shy primates. We knew which songs we needed to avoid. The ones with a very fast succession of notes. The ones with complicated fast lyrics with lots of consonants. Once you know, you can use the space to your advantage.
Vegan echo chambers are here to stay, and with veganism growing and becoming more mainstream, we are going to have more of them, bigger and more diverse. Let’s embrace them and use them well. Let’s not blame them for our faults and weaknesses.
Veganism can profit from using them properly.
We may get to the vegan world sooner if we do.