How can we change political discourse?

Social media encloses us in a bubble of similar opinions, whilst debate-style shows fail to really challenge us. How can we break this pattern?

Steven Campbell-Harris
5 August 2016
 Andrew Milligan / PA Archive/Press Association Imag

Announcement of the SNP's legal challenge to BBC debate policy, 2010. Photo: Andrew Milligan / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. A week before the EU referendum, a message popped up on my Facebook news feed. Someone had posted a request: “Is there anyone on here who is going to vote Brexit? And if so could you explain your reasons to me (you can PM me if you want)? I am very aware that I don’t know a single person who is pro Brexit…”   

The day after the referendum Facebook was full of comments like these, only they were less curious and more angry. This is shameful, they said. Why could so many be so stupid. Some even called for ‘un-friending’ the Leavers. The friendly appeal on my news feed just a week before- ‘could you explain your reasons to me?’- had been replaced by bitterness and recrimination "F**k this. I am ashamed to be British". It felt as though the country had lost its innocence. 

Speaking at a TED conference in 2011, Eli Pariser warned of the dangers of the Internet (and Google and Facebook in particular) hermetically sealing us within our political sub-groups; warm comforting echo chambers where we see our views reflected back to us. You ‘like’ my post and I’ll ‘like’ yours back. More recently, a spate of “no-platforming” controversies in the UK and the US have highlighted our all-too-human tendency to seek out information to corroborate our preconceptions and avoid challenging or controversial views. Psychologists have a term for the process that underpins this: confirmation bias. It was this bias that my friend was attempting to overcome. But here we might wish to interject, isn’t this what the media is for?

Psychologists have a term for the process that underpins this: confirmation bias.

Unfortunately, intended solutions from the media appear to be compounding the problem they seek to address. ‘Dialogic’ or debate-style political shows present viewers with a diverse range of views. But a 2013 study by BBC Media Action showed that this format, as opposed to ‘monologic’ or presentation-style programming, can actually lead to a decrease in political knowledge.

The authors of the study argue that this kind of political communication exacerbates pre-existing disparities in knowledge between those of higher and lower socio-economic status. Filtering through falsehood, misinformation, and obfuscatory remarks requires a considerable amount of effort. Doing so effectively also depends on prior understanding of the political context. Instead of broadening access to political knowledge, then, debate shows often have the opposite effect of widening the knowledge gap and perpetuating inequality.

‘Dialogic’ programming may also have the added effect of quashing political curiosity; the desire to seek out divergent views to understand them better. Curiosity, according to the psychologist George Loewenstein, arises when we identify manageable gaps in our knowledge that we wish to close. There is a ‘Zone of Curiosity’ in between too little and too much stimulation, ‘If it is too low, there will be no motivation to explore, if it is too high it will result in anxiety, if it is just right, it will result in exploratory behaviour.’

There are a number of ways that we can reform political coverage to encourage ‘exploratory behaviour’. The psychologist Daniel Berlyne has identified four curiosity ‘triggers’: complexity, novelty, uncertainty, and conflict. Politics is full of animating conflict, but this conflict is often anxiety-inducing. The right kind of conflict is catalytic; it generates further questions for exploration (thereby producing novelty) and prompts reflection and re-evaluation of our values (generating uncertainty and complexity). Instead of focusing on talking points, coverage should present viewers with puzzles and controversies. Would Britain’s standing in the world be weakened or strengthened by leaving the EU? In a democracy, how much say should elected representatives and the party membership have in electing party leaders?

The right kind of conflict is catalytic; it generates further questions for exploration

A new debate show would aim to present synopses of these judgments. By highlighting where and why people disagree, and then opening up an inquiry into the reasons that underpin those judgments, these shows can and should curb the feelings of alienation and anxiety that became a hallmark of the political coverage.

Political curiosity could also be increased by approaching ‘dialogic’ shows in a  collaborative and enquiry-driven way. An RSA study showed that curiosity is enhanced when there are no ‘closed learning outcomes’ and students are required to ‘actively explore and investigate topic areas and create their own outcomes.’ Dialogic shows often constrict their investigation to a particular issue or question, instead of deepening the understanding of the interrelation between different issues. As a result, curiosity suffers.

The reality TV actor Joey Essex is perhaps the last person you would look to for insight into contemporary politics. Yet in an ITV2 documentary last year, he voiced his reason for not voting in the general election with the clarity and directness of a child, “I have never voted in my life because I don't understand politics and I don't think you should vote for things if you don't understand them.” If politics is to overcome the charge of elitism, people need to feel both that institutions are responsive to change from the ballot box but also, and perhaps more crucially, that they are competent enough and well-equipped to engage in the political process. The survival of political curiosity depends on it.

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