The Internet as a Political Echo Chamber

I cut my eye teeth in social psychology with a dissertation followed by a decade of research exploring group polarization. Our repeated finding: When like minds interact, their views often become more extreme. For example, when high-prejudice students discussed racial issues, they became more prejudiced, and vice versa when we grouped low-prejudice students with one another.

When doing that research half a lifetime ago, I never imagined the benefits, and the dangers, of virtual like-minded groups . . . with both peacemakers and conspiracy theorists reinforcing their kindred spirits.

In a recent New York Times essay, University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci studied the Twitter feeds of Donald Trump supporters, and observed

cascading self-affirmation. People naturally thrive by finding like-minded others, and I watch as Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media. I watch as their networks expand, and as followers find one another as they voice ever more extreme opinions.

In the echo cham­ber of the virtual world, as in the real world, separation + conversation = polarization. The Internet has such wonderful potential to create Mark Zuckerburg’s vision of “a more connected world.” But it also offers a powerful mechanism for deepening social divisions and promoting extremist views and actions.

On my list of the future’s great challenges, somewhere not far below restraining climate change, is learning how to harness the great benefits of the digital future without exacerbating group polarization.