How the Internet has wrecked political discourse

If you are reading this, chances are that you would describe yourself as pro-Israel and probably right of center.

You probably read several other pro-Israel and conservative blogs. You do not read +972 Magazine, or Mondoweiss. If you are American, you probably prefer Fox News to MSNBC. If you are Israeli, you might read Israel Hayom or Makor Rishon. You would not be caught dead buying Ha’aretz.

This is called an ‘information bubble’. If you are inside such a bubble, you are only exposed to opinions that you already agree with. A large part of the reason is the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias, by which we tend “to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.”

Confirmation bias has been the subject of much study by psychologists and brain scientists, who have found that the process of finding confirming evidence for a proposition that one is already committed to is accompanied by brain processes associated with release of emotional tension and pleasure. Reading Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz is, for a certain kind of individual, similar to sex (or at least more available).

What has happened is that the Internet and especially social media, which might have been expected to remove limitations and provide a plethora of options to consumers of information, have had the opposite effect. They have become amplifiers of confirmation bias.

This is because of the economic facts about advertising-supported sites. The more clicks, the more money. So developers want people to look at their sites as much as possible, which they accomplish by doing their best to figure out what users want to see and giving it to them.

In his book titled “The Filter Bubble,” left-wing activist Eli Pariser (they can be right about some things) argued that search engines like Google and social media like Facebook amplify our own confirmation bias by trying to show us what their algorithms think we want to see, on the basis of our location, age, gender, interests, use of keywords, ‘likes’ and prior searches.

In Pariser’s search engine example, “one user searched Google for ‘BP’ and got investment news about British Petroleum while another searcher got information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Facebook’s algorithm is tuned to produce pleasurable sensations from confirmation of biases and agreement with prejudices in order to keep its users clicking. It is applied psychology at its most sophisticated, rivaling addictive video slot machines which combine visual and auditory stimuli with just enough monetary reinforcement to keep the player going until she (usually) or he drops. In Facebook the reinforcement is in the form of agreeable information bites, but it is just as possible to become addicted to it as to slot machines.

In addition to the mechanical coercion of the algorithm, a principle of Facebook etiquette has emerged that one doesn’t challenge the initiator of a thread. So if the same link has been shared by a right-wing and left-wing person, the comments on each post will mostly support the position of the initiator. The ‘wrong’ kind of comment will be met with vituperation and announcements that the commenter has been blocked. God forbid that anyone might see something that they disagree with!

The problem posed by the bubble to those, like me, who want to influence readers, is that the only people who will see my content are those who already agree with it. So it would be a waste of time for me to write an article aimed at refuting false perceptions of Israel. All I can do is try to provide my ‘base’ with new information or arguments. But such material will be as useless to them as it is to me, since nobody who doesn’t already agree with them will see it either. And if I do succeed to talk to someone on the ‘other side’, I find that we are working with an entirely different set of facts and assumptions, so that substantive interaction becomes impossible.

All bubbles are not created equal. For example, the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is a fact, based solidly in history and international law. This ‘bubble’ is a bubble of truth, and the bubble containing Gideon Levy is not.

Another issue, since discussion only takes place within groups that share the same ideology, is the one-way reinforcement of more and more extreme positions. The way to ‘ring the bell’ of the pleasure centers of the brain in a group with a particular ideological bent is to push the envelope. Moderation is boring, and doesn’t impress your peers. So when such a group goes off by itself and bounces ideas back and forth — think of leftist academics — the more extreme ones are reinforced. As a result, there is a sort of centrifugal force pushing the adoption of more radical positions and driving opposing groups farther apart.

It’s true that ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and national or local radio and TV have similar issues – I mentioned Ha’aretz – but it is to a far lesser extent. If there is a limited number of newspapers or TV channels available, more diverse groups will be exposed to them. So in the US for example many conservatives read the NY Times or listen to NPR because they provide some content of interest despite disagreement with their editorial slant. But the Internet provides an unlimited variety of slants, and in effect everyone’s Facebook timeline has its own individual slant.

There is a relationship between the Internet and the burgeoning of ‘political correctness’. We have all been admonished at one time or another not to talk about politics because it is ‘divisive’. But in the age of the Internet, it is not politics in general, but politics that don’t agree with someone’s prejudices that one is not allowed to talk about. The Facebook etiquette I mentioned that forbids going against the ideology of a thread is an example.

Some people have developed exquisite sensitivity to what they will allow themselves to hear. I strongly doubt that the meme of ‘microaggressions’ (also here) would have developed before the Internet taught people that they ought to have the right – because on the Internet they have the ability – to be free from hearing anything that they might judge to be the slightest bit offensive. The same idea pops up in student demands for safe spaces – local restrictions on free speech – and trigger warnings on books, films, etc.

These demands are couched in language about ‘protecting’ students who may suffer from PTSD-like conditions, but in fact serve to override the principles of free speech and academic freedom. And the effect is usually to support leftist views. You don’t hear a lot about ‘safe spaces’ for conservatives, or ‘trigger warnings’ for the presence of Marxism.

Finally, there is the much-discussed phenomenon that cyber-anonymity permits breaches of civility that would not occur in face-to-face discussion, or even signed correspondence. I think anonymity is just part of it; it’s the combination of anonymity with bubble-generated extremism and solipsism that have given us the ‘cesspool’ of the comments sections found on some sites. It’s ironic that the same technology that has encouraged acute hypersensitivity and attempts to restrict speech, has also given rise to a genre of take-no-prisoners verbal aggression.

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1 Response to How the Internet has wrecked political discourse

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is an especially interesting and informative article. As so often in reading this blog I feel the special pleasure of truly learning something in reading it, and not simply wasting time as I do with much of the ‘political writing’ I read.
    I would just however point out another aspect of this from my experience. I expect that those who wish to truly be on top of things do read the writings of their political enemies Good intelligence is a part of fighting any war.
    I suspect too that the writing of enemies is often a creative provocation a source of the kind of irritation and anger which often brings forth great polemical writing.
    There is also the matter of openly opposing views one finds deplorable.
    These tempt to contradiction especially when they are highly distributed views as for instance those of NYTimes opinion writers.
    There is too another dimension of this given by the Internet. It has opened up the world to the voice of anyone who wants to have a voice, or sort- of one. This has a certain advantage especially if one thinks of the way one in the past was often confined to reading the works of a few highly privileged columnists. It has the disadvantage of opening up a Pandora’s box of stupid, ignorant, evil, writing, of expanding the range and scope of the haters of which there are far too many.
    But then too it provides blogs of excellence like this one which give us something we would not get otherwise.

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