During the 16th century, in the Brazilian Northeast region of Salvador, Bahia, the Candomblé religion emerged. This new faith originated as the synthesis of various West African traditions brought in by African slaves. For centuries, practitioners of this religion, the so-called povo do santo (people of the saint), passed on their customs in which music and dance are important parts of the dogma. As anthropologist Rebecca Seligman examines in her book, Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves, rhythm and frantic movements facilitate believers of this faith to believe they are possessed by deities known as Orishas. In her work, Seligman explains how these practices, by which Candomblé believers seemed to receive divine packages of information, shape their corporeal experience and their idea of self-existence. Although in today’s world we don’t operate this ancient concept of possession, the age of hyper-information we live in does shape us. It's fair to say that we are the embodiment of modern society’s contradictions, which, to ancient religious tribes, could make us look possessed by exterior forces.

The people of the saint in Brazil during Candomblé. Photo by Lázaro Roberto.

The people of the saint in Brazil during Candomblé. Photo by Lázaro Roberto.

Our modern world is still an unequal one, where racism, xenophobia, misogyny or cultural rage are daily occurrences. Yet, we believe that our acts are based on rational decisions just because we are rational beings. The reality is that we are extremely sensitive to all these hostile external forces and thus very persuadable. Moreover, the extension of the political and public sphere over social media has worsened the situation: we have been given the power to create micro-universes where our own ideas unceasingly resonate as if bouncing from the walls of an empty hall. We are constantly possessed by unfiltered ideas that take over us and, consequently, we act irrationally by impulse.

The phenomenon known as “echo chambers” implies that these micro-universes of information act as a confirmation of what people already believe. Therefore, these structures that help acquire knowledge in fact discourage open dialogue or critical thinking. The debate around climate change is a good illustration of this. In his article, Politics: Echo Chambers and False Certainty, Justin Farrell studies different actors who engage in US climate politics and, most importantly, the origin of facts and knowledge they employ. Farrell’s findings expose that, for instance, within more conservative echo chambers, people tend to believe that climate change is still subject to debate. On the contrary, outside these reactionary cages, there is an overwhelming scientific accord around the reality and consequences of climate change.

The Oath, 1978 by John Stezaker.

The Oath, 1978 by John Stezaker.

More recently, the last US election that resulted in the election of Donald Trump as the 45th American president questions the reliability of daily tools such as Facebook’s News Feed. Based on previous clicks and choices, and set preferences, the algorithm of this tool prioritises news on users´ personal timeline. This has been the subject of controversy, with clear evidence of the circulation of fake news during the American electoral campaign.

The result of the American election has left us wondering what can be done prevent ourselves from being caged into these chambers. Diana C. Mutz’s work, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy, inspects with care a way to stop walling ourselves off from others and their ideas. In fact, as Mutz suggests, we must be willing to debate and engage in critical thinking in order to prevent the polarisation of our ideas. This willingness is what can help us control our bodies and minds as they respond to external input.

Words: Sergio López

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu