We Should All Know Less About Each Other
In 2017, after the shock of Brexit and then Donald Trump’s election, Christopher Bail, a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, set out to study what would happen if you forced people out of their social media echo chambers.
Bail is the director of The Polarization Lab, a team of social scientists, computer scientists and statisticians who study how technology amplifies political divisions. He and his colleagues recruited 1,220 Twitter users who identified as either Democrats or Republicans, offering to pay them $11 to follow a particular Twitter account for a month. Although the participants didn’t know it, the Democrats were assigned to follow a bot account that retweeted messages from prominent Republican politicians and thinkers. The Republicans, in turn, followed a bot account that retweeted Democrats.
At the time, a lot of concern about the internet’s role in political polarization revolved around what digital activist Eli Pariser once called filter bubbles, a term for the way an increasingly personalized internet traps people in self-reinforcing information silos.
“The echo chamber idea was reaching its kind of apex in terms of its public influence,” Bail told me. “It nicely explained how Trump had won, how Brexit had happened.” Bail’s team wanted to see if getting people to engage with ideas they wouldn’t otherwise encounter might moderate their views.
The opposite happened. “Nobody became more moderate,” Bail said. “Republicans in particular became much more conservative when they followed the Democratic bot, and Democrats became a little bit more liberal.”
Social media platforms have long justified themselves with the idea that connecting people would make the world more open and humane. In offline life, after all, meeting lots of different kinds of people tends to broaden the mind, turning caricatures into complicated individuals. It’s understandable that many once believed the same would be true on the internet.
But it turns out there’s nothing intrinsically good about connection, especially online.
On the internet, exposure to people unlike us often makes us hate them, and that hatred increasingly structures our politics.
The social corrosion caused by Facebook and other platforms isn’t a side effect of bad management and design decisions. It’s baked into social media itself.
文／Michelle Goldberg 譯／李京倫