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Trump, social media, and the rise of lazy intellectualism

Why the echo-chamber of social media is polarizing politics and shutting down debate. 

Tej Parikh
4 November 2016
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Donald Trump. Press Association/Chuck Burton. All rights reserved.

When it comes to unravelling 2016’s ‘post-truth, populist, and anti-expert’ political trifecta, analysts have squeezed all they can from the social sciences. But class divides, inequality, and globalization just seem too clunky to explain entirely why the best educated and most informed generation in human history is so close to electing the least qualified candidate ever to the highest post on the planet.

Technology — which remains alien to most socio-economic models — may offer a clue. The internet’s expanded space for public opinion and streamlined media landscape only underscores the current state of our political discourse — particularly when one in two people with online access use social media as a weekly news source, according a Reuters Institute worldwide survey. Sure we have more degrees, better schooling and fingertip access to information, but with our online lifestyles we are also more exposed to the cognitive biases that render the intellectual process moot.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have spawned a generation of self-styled ‘Wikis’ and ‘infotainment’ journalism with the platforms to engage in real-time public policy debates. And while filters, hashtags, and clickbait headlines have broadcast and ring-fenced their partisan, simplified, and unsubstantiated viewpoints, nuance is increasingly side-lined — outcompeted for pace and plainness in an online world that seeks trigger words, platitudes, and 140 characters to make quick judgments, explanations, and associations.

Democracy may be louder, but that isn’t necessarily better. 

The result: a lazy, naive, and narcissistic internet intellectualism, serving as an echo-chamber for one’s beliefs, opinions and prejudices while self-righteously blocking opposition. Democracy may be louder, but that isn’t necessarily better. Agnotologists — who study culturally induced ignorance or doubt — find that misinformation spreads under conditions of weak understanding coupled with confusion created by special interest groups. Online, manipulating incomplete knowledge and emotion is child’s play with viral-prone memes, tweets and posts, while cumbersome evidence is easier to dismiss in a Trumpian, or Govian, fashion.

But beyond spreading perception, social media may also blind us to reality. A recent study published on the Social Science Research Network, which focused on climate change beliefs, found that when people were exposed to fictitious facts that contradicted their feelings on global warming, their sentiments were broadly unchanged. Yet in the face of supporting ‘facts’ their positions actually became stronger — deniers dismissed climate change more, while proponents thought it was stronger.

This selective confirmation bias is enhanced by the ‘Googleability’ of information we desire, customizable newsfeeds and ‘people who liked x, also liked y’ algorithms. We no longer need to expose ourselves to opposition and instead become more tribal about what we think we know: we begin to find credence in Trump’s bombast. A 2014 study by the U.S. think tank the Pew Research Center which mapped U.S. Twitter discussions found that political topics formed distinct polarized groups — often liberal and conservative camps — which largely interacted separately. A similar analysis would likely ring true for the ‘Little Englander’ and ‘Little Londoner’ online camps post-Brexit. In sum, we’re largely ‘debating’ with people who agree with us.

Social media’s raid on effective discourse doesn’t end there. It also bolsters our ability to ‘thin-slice’ — a term denoting our inclination to pigeonhole with bite-sized clues. A cursory glance at politics-into-entertainment news platforms illustrates the use of sensationalist headlines and conspiracy theory ‘journalism’ to enable snap judgments. And it works both ways. In a 'what you think,' and not 'how you think,' culture, challenging opinions immediately places you in the bigot bucket. As Pew research finds, people are more willing to air their views online if they think their followers agree with them — such ‘groupthink’ only leaves us tethered to the status quo.

These online blindfolds are manifesting in our everyday lives. We’ve already begun to customize our public domains — with ‘safe space’ and ‘no-platforming’ rife across university campuses — while politics polarize and fear mongering displaces fact in debate. And not only are we outsourcing our cognitive capacity to the internet, but also our memories. A 2011 study finds that when people have access to Googleable information sources they remember less as they can rely on search results.

We’ve lost so much clarity that the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ meme vis-a-vis the US election has become pervasive. 

We’ve lost so much clarity that the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ meme vis-a-vis the US election has become pervasive. Really? Whatever you think of Clinton — arguably the most qualified presidential candidate ever — her shortcomings cannot come close to Trump’s sheer ineptitude.

The internet, more specifically social media, is clearly a double-edged sword for democracy — it just depends on how we interact with it. That begins with renouncing some of the concessions in consideration that it offers us. Fact-checking websites like Politifact are a starting point. But why not also: follow both Breitbart and The Huffington Post, add caveats before sharing posts, bias-check articles, or challenge that post you disagree with, despite its mountain of likes?

Otherwise, the self-aggrandizement that social media offers us will leave policy debates impeded by tribalism and devoid of pragmatism—and post-truth, populist, and anti-expert politics only thrives when everyone believes they’re on the side of the righteous.

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