Why the ‘backfire effect’ is damaging political debate

A few months ago I read an inconvenient academic paper titled ‘When Corrections Fail’. Having spent years putting forward the neat case for ‘the market place of ideas’, this paper argued that coming into contact with ideas you disagree with rarely changes your mind. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. When deeply held moral and political views are discussed (especially without much depth) we leave more convinced than ever that we were right all along. Exposure to different opinions or information that contradicts our world view often simply hardens our position. This is known as ‘the backfire effect’.

It’s almost impossible to change someone’s deeply held views by arguing with them, which is why politics and religion are banned from dinner tables: you don’t get anywhere. We drone on about ideas market-places and being open-minded, but we rarely budge an inch on our moral or political views. (This might be because one’s political views are tied up with identity, which means any disagreement feels like a personal attack).

The backfire effect has been found in several studies, from tax cuts, to abortions, even UFOs. When shown newspaper articles about there being no WMDs in Iraq, pro-war subjects reported being more convinced they existed.

This backfire effect perhaps explains the state of political debate online, and why it gets so nasty. The received wisdom is that social media is characterised by ‘echo-chambers’ and ‘filter-bubbles’. A combination of network affects, algorithms, and personal choices means people don’t hear opposing political views online. Everyone is surrounded by like-minded people and corroborating news. It’s turning them angry, small-minded, dogmatic, et cetera.

But far from being an echo-chamber, it’s incredibly easy to find opposing views on social media. They’re everywhere. Your timeline and feed are bursting with knaves and fools.

There they are just look at them what unbearable assholes and so damn wrong about everything.

I don’t live in an echo-chamber or filter-bubble. Quite the reverse! I’m surrounded by idiots and dangerous demagogues. In fact, I’m the only sensible one here.

The backfire effect is getting turbocharged online. I think we’re getting more angry and convinced about everything, not because we’re surrounded by like-minded people, but by people who disagree with us. Social media allows you to find the worst examples of your opponents. It’s not a place to have your own views corroborated, but rather where your worst suspicions about the other lot can be quickly and easily confirmed.

The shouty Corbyn supporter, some old communist tweeting his shout-at-the-television, can be used as proof that Corbyn is a crypto-Stalinist.

The ranty post by someone who’s a Facebook friend of UKIP is proof that the lot of them are racists, white supremacists, etc.

Is there a way out? Last week I listened to the philosopher Julian Baggini at a conference called ‘Off Grid’. He explained something called ‘principle of charity’, which states that we ought to interpret a speaker’s statement as rational, and consider its best possible interpretation. What if, perhaps, that Corbynite tweeter really is worried about ‘social justice’ and thinks inequality is bad for everyone? What if that Tory is motived by clearing the national debt so our children don’t have to pay it, rather than out of a bloodthirsty desire for cuts?

Try it! At the very least, it might delay the heat death of reasonable political disagreement.