The backfire effect, bad objects, and changing our minds online

On social media, when exposed to opposing views, are we likely to change our minds? Or is there a 'backfire effect' which in fact consolidates communities around common "bad objects"?

David Beer
19 July 2017

Facebook advertisement expert Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth. Christian Charisius/PA Images. All rights reserved.In the last year the concept of the ‘filter bubble’, developed by Eli Pariser back in 2011, suddenly seemed quite urgent. I probably don’t need to say why. Its frequent use meant that it even became a cliche of sorts. In contrast to this popular vision of how social media limits our window on the world, Jamie Bartlett has used a short piece to explore why the ‘backfire effect’ is a better way for understanding the damage that has been done to political debate.

Rarely are people persuaded to change their minds by ideas or arguments that run counter to their established notions.

In this case, the ‘backfire effect’ is used to describe how our encounters with opposing views actually reinforce our own existing views — rarely are people persuaded to change their minds by ideas or arguments that run counter to their established notions. Bartlett’s intervention neatly describes how this concept can be used to understand social media interactions. One key point he makes is that rather than simply filtering out alternative points of view, social media constantly present us with views that frustrate, annoy or anger us.

It’s an important observation. Before last week I don’t think I was aware that Andrew Adonis was even on Twitter. Following some bizarre comments he made about academics’ summer holidays and his subsequent goading of the academic community, I’ve repeatedly seen a handful of his tweets as people, understandably riled, have shared and responded to the comments. I suspect that no one’s views of what academics do has been changed. It seems more likely to have entrenched existing views on both sides. That’s just one example of what, I think, Bartlett is pointing toward. You won’t need to look far to find lots of others.

Having said this, Bartlett’s vision might be overlooking (or at least understating) the collective way that this ‘backfire effect’ often works. It seems to have a kind of community forming property. This might be negative, with collective adherence to damaging or prejudicial views becoming harder to challenge. Reductive and populist ideas might find purchase by creating accounts of the world to act against rather than persuade otherwise. Yet, in the case of Adonis’ comments, a good deal of solidarity was expressed within the outrage. People shared their frustration as they shared comments. It might be that social media are based around the connection forming properties of ‘the backfire effect’ that Bartlett refers to — as well as the individual cementing of views that it is said to cause.

This can happen algorithmically as well as being a product of how social media are used. Algorithms are unlikely to hide counterintuitive content from us, they like things that stimulate activity of any sort. The ‘backfire effect’ is one way that acitivity can be provoked. But it is also significant as a phenomenon because of the way social media are used.

Bad objects

The sociologists Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett have discussed how certain celebrities act as ‘bad objects’. As people distance themselves from those celebrities, they share in that act of distancing. The bad object becomes a symbol that people can collectively differentiate themselves from. So, the bad object enables social connections to be forged and maintained — whilst also perpetuating various social divisions and patterns of abjection. We could see the content that enables this shared backfiring as being like these bad objects — with people connecting by acting together to distance themselves from that content. Collective backfiring.

The bad object enables social connections to be forged and maintained — whilst also perpetuating various social divisions.

Rather than representing a totally different way of understanding social media, the backfire effect can even contribute to the filter bubble. When these alternative perspectives or narratives arrive they are shared within a network they are often explicitly identified as some sort of illustration of what is seen to be wrong, what shouldn’t be and what falls outside the accepted positions of that network.

When we see ‘backfire’ type content — i.e. stuff that we don’t like or agree or which goes against our logic, but which ultimately solidifies our existing views — it often comes with commentary from other social media users that contextualises our potential disdain and cements its ‘backfire’ credentials.

We don’t necessarily need to reject the idea of the ‘filter bubble’ to explore this backfire effect. The filter bubble doesn’t mean that we only see things we agree with or see as rational, it means we see things that support our world view. These could be things we feel are wrong but which we and others are using to create the boundaries of our bubbles and give our social networks inward coherence. This includes things that we despise, feel we know to be wrong or which we think are misleading. It’s just that these things are deployed within networks to distance and create boundaries and norms. It might be that the backfire effect is part of how the filter bubble operates and how social media reifies perspectives. It might not be, as Bartlett argues, the ‘reverse’ of a filter bubble or echo chamber.

Either way, the shift here is in thinking of the power of a kind of collective backfire effect, rather than seeing it as an entirely individual response. Understanding any possible damage to political debate might require us to understand social media’s collective backfiring.

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