How the Internet drives polarization

I had an epiphany of sorts this morning and I wanted to run the insight by you. Here’s what I decided: just maybe the Internet is responsible for a lot of the increasing polarization we see online. Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

Social Media

It started with social media. I was driving back from dropping my son off at his school bus stop, listening to the radio. And they were talking about the responsibility that social media bore for conspiracy theories. The journalist was saying something like, “sure, conspiracy theories existed before the Internet. But the Internet makes it vastly easier to find like-minded souls who believe the same thing.”

And I think that’s true. Now, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ conjures up the idea of a bunch of mentally unstable people thinking something is true when it’s not. So, the term is usually a derogatory one. But conspiracy theories are simply hypotheses that contradict the prevailing narrative. Though often they are untrue, they well could be true.

Pre-Internet, there were the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, especially the concept that a bullet was fired from the grassy knoll, trying to kill the President – meaning Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone gunman. The thought is that Oswald was part of a ‘conspiracy’. This is something a lot of people believed and discussed before the Internet – and still do to some degree.

But, think about that in the context of the Internet, where you can chat with other like-minded people you’ve never even met before. You have the ability to reinforce your beliefs in a much greater way than ever before. That’s why 9/11 truthers think the US government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And that’s why a man stormed a DC restaurant because of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to free children he falsely believed were abducted and held prisoner.

Social media gets people together who wouldn’t get together in the real world and helps them reinforce their pre-existing believes, hardening their stance on conspiracy theories and a lot of other things too.

The Backfire Effect

Seven years ago I wrote about something called the backfire effect, which occurs when people’s hardened pre-existing beliefs are challenged. This is how the human mind works:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

You Are Not So Smart

More specifically:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

Now, let’s think about this in the context of politics and the Internet. Before the Internet, you might have believed something and discussed it with friends, family and acquaintances. But now, you can see dozens of other people on the Internet who believe the same thing too. And you can exchange ideas with them on social media – tweet to them, read their Facebook posts, what have you.

Isn’t that going to harden your pre-existing political beliefs? And then what happens when those now hardened political beliefs are challenged? “When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead.”

That’s how human psychology works. And that’s how polarization develops.

Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi in Maine

I had all of this in mind immediately after I heard the piece about conspiracy theories on the radio this morning. That’s when I heard the next segment on a Republican congressional candidate. I was sort of half-listening. So I don’t know who he was. But I was struck by a comment he made about his race. He claimed his Democratic opponent was getting an unfair advantage from “outside money” from “Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters”. And so, he was trying to galvanize his supporters because of this alleged outrage.

But hang on one minute. Nancy Pelosi, I get. She’s the former Democratic Speaker of the House. But Maxine Waters is getting people to donate money in a local election in Maine? This seemed like total bullshit to me. So I looked up “nancy pelosi maxine waters outside money maine” on Google and found nothing. The first thing I did see was an article from CNBC saying “Nancy Pelosi rebukes Maxine Waters for comments on Trump” from June where it says “Pelosi has also called a push among Waters and other Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump “divisive.””

So I am sceptical about this stuff. It may turn about to be true. But let me tell you what I think is happening.

Maxine Waters has no leadership position in Congress. I sort of knew that already. But I checked and the only thing I can come up with was her role as senior Democrat and Ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee. She was also a former Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus until 1999. But she has no leadership position in the Democratic Party. Even her own website says so.

But Maxine Waters has been very vocal in opposing Donald Trump. The “Nancy Pelosi rebukes Maxine Waters for comments on Trump” CNBC article from June shows that. You could even call her ‘divisive’. And as such, Waters is now a target of Trump’s ire and of his supporters. That’s why she was a recipient of one of the mail bomb packages Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc Jr sent.

Nancy Pelosi has long been a leader in the Democratic Party. And as such, Pelosi is also a target of Trump’s ire and of his supporters. That’s why Cesar Sayoc Jr also sent her one of the mail bomb packages. And it’s why the Maine congressional candidate mentioned her name.

This is what’s commonly known as a ‘dog whistle’. We’ve seen the attacks on Pelosi and Waters time and again — so much so that these two women were the subject of a potential attempted murder by a deranged Trump supporter. And yet, the Maine congressional candidate repeats the dog whistle about “outside money”, “Nancy Pelosi”, and “Maxine Waters” after these bomb attacks.

Disgusting. Absolutely despicable

Polarization will continue

Hang on, though. Objectively speaking, it may be despicable to attack a member of Congress who someone just tried to murder. But if you are trying to rally your base of support who live in a world in which the name Maxine Waters is pure evil, dog whistling her name might help you win.

And remember, in a world in which the backfire effect is strong, your base won’t see this as a vile attack and a violation of the norms of basic civil discourse. They will see it as a justified attack on someone who urged Democrats to ‘mob up’ and aggressively confront all Trump Administration officials, on the street when they were on their free time as private citizens. They will see in Maxine Waters the concept of ‘what goes around, comes around’.

So, I think this dog whistle will work. It will remind Republicans of who they see as the enemy and help convince them that this enemy must be defeated. Sure, the Maine congressional candidate’s appeal is a polarizing framing. But that’s where we are right now.

I anticipate the polarization will continue and get worse. And the Internet will be a big part of why.

Am I being too pessimistic about the politics? And am I being too pessimistic about the Internet’s role in this?

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