A Blog-Bubble Bleg:

by Matthew Shaffer

One of biggest memes among the online commentariat is the ironic fear that the world of online commentary is allowing people to surround themselves in confirming, and shut out contrary, perspectives and information. The fear is that this is facilitating extremism, aggravating our biases, and blinding us to information that does not fit neatly into our ideologies.

A couple of things are bothersome about this meme. The first is that the discussion usually exhibits an elitist condescension: The writers of these pieces typically feel they have benefited from the diversity of perspectives accessible online, as they consider themselves exempt from these biases, but assume that all of those ordinary folk in the Republican or Democratic bases simply marinate themselves in their own propaganda. The second is that, relative to the frequency and confidence with which such claims are asserted at cocktail parties and on blogs, they are actually pretty poorly evidenced. 

Which is why I was delighted to see a contrary perspective from Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker. His criticism of one recent book on the subject is that, 

“It does a decent job of discussing the ramifications of its core assumptions, but it never establishes that those assumptions are true. Most importantly, it doesn’t establish that we’re being herded into ever-tighter filter bubbles.”

Walker points out that traditional media also had filters, and their readers had attentional biases (who really ever read newspapers cover-to-cover?). There’s sparse data — beyond anecdotes about nasty, anonymous commenters — supporting the view that these have actually been aggravated by the web. The provocative claim of Walker’s review is that if things really have changed, they may well have changed in good ways: 

“If we’re living in bubbles, they’re bubbles that sure like to ram into each other. And bubbles that collide are bubbles that are more likely to burst.”

Whether this is actually happening is an empirical question. And the only major study I’m familiar with on this subject is Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro’s. Walker summarizes its conclusions that

…the Net “makes it easy to consume news from multiple sources.” People who get their information from one source “tend to be light users, and their sole source tends to be one of the large relatively centrist outlets”; meanwhile, “people who visit sites like drudgereport.com or huffingtonpost.com, by contrast, are heavy Internet users with a strong interest in politics. Although their political views are relatively extreme, they also tend to consume more of everything, including centrist sites and occasionally sites with conflicting ideology.”

I actually found the most interesting take-away from the study to be how politically segregated our face-to-face acquaintances and interactions are. So much so that, even if online media are biasing us, they are biasing us much less than substituting our online conversations for normal offline conversations would. (Related to this, I highly recommend Mark Dunkelman’s moving essay in National Affairs on the declining diversity of American communities.)

But an essential, unknowable, question about Gentzkow and Shapiro’s study is what is the motivation of internet users who visit sites with conflicting perspectives? Is the typical conservative who visits Mother Jones doing so in a sympathetic mood, with the goal of authentically inhabiting liberal perspectives and learning information that may be filtered out of conservative discourses? Or is he doing so adversarially, hoping to find something to gape at and ridicule, to stimulate his outrage and remind himself once more of the iniquity of his adversaries? At the very least, when we cross-link to politically opposite bogs, it is usually to gape and ridicule.

Personally, I greatly benefited from aiming the vast majority of my RSS feeds this past year at left-leaning sites, in an effort to counter my own biases. But that effort takes massive amounts of free time and masochism and commitment that people with, say, real jobs outside of opinion journalism can’t always afford. The evolutionary urge to reason and converse just to win is so difficult to overcome that I suspect most of our visits to opposing websites (including, at a subconscious level, my own) are done more in the spirit of opposition research than truly sympathetic inquiry.

My point is, the effects of the internet on our collective political psychology are more complicated than either the cocktail-party meme, or a simple study of our internet-browsing habits, would suggest. I’d like it if anyone could point me to more studies that I could try to unpack later this week.