The World Is Not Yet a Polarized Place
Why it feels like we disagree so much — and why we actually don’t
Paradoxically, in our post-truth era of culture wars, echo-chambers, information overload, and fake news, this is considered self-evident:
“Each group lives in its own echo chamber, which it believes is the “true” reality” — Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble
In this essay, I argue that this is a wild exaggeration.
Many people do not believe their echo chamber is the true reality and do not conclude that, when others disagree with us, this is because they fail to see this objective reality as it is.
In fact, I think the narrative according to which we live in an era of unprecedented polarization is itself a piece of fake news.
Let’s begin with understanding our opponent’s position.
Echo chambers are social structures in which other relevant voices are actively excluded and discredited. Consequentially, members not only lack exposure to relevant information and arguments. They also have been brought to systematically distrust all outside sources and sometimes even de-humanize humans who disagree with them.
Now, the rationale for claiming each group lives in its own echo chamber, which it believes is the true reality, is straightforward enough. This makes the theory feel truth-y. Here it is.
Information — everything you know about the world — was once gathered and disseminated by a handful of trusted institutions. These days, however, whole segments of the population have dismissed the mainstream media as untrustworthy.
Since truth can’t speak for itself, we need some agreement of what conditions a statement needs to meet to count as plausible. If there are no institutions that have credibility and are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, then there is no truth — only individual and tribal ‘truths’.
In 2019, we don’t get the news and information from the same trusted, considered-as-objective sources with authority, but get the ‘facts’ from different places to begin with. People seek out what supports their views and eschew data conflicting with their beliefs.
And in an age of social media and targeted, personalized content, these echo chambers become even more insular, as we’re exposed to less and less information outside our own chosen groups.
Combine all these influences, and it seems like the conclusion that people live in their own reality follows smoothly:
The creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is “real” and what isn’t. — Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society
And because we think we see the world as it is, we think reasonable people ought to agree with us. So to the extent they do not, we conclude they’re an unreasonable, biased bunch. We polarize.
It’s a slick story. And not entirely accurate.
We’ll get there later.
First, let me concede that it’s indeed an unfortunate truth that, in some people’s dictionaries, in the lemma “truth” it says: “Only what is useful to me”.
Vox-writer David Roberts calls this tendency ‘tribal epistemology’, and it’s definitely on the rise:
Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.
This reinforces ideological separation and has led to a situation where many people focus on the source of the evidence rather than the quality of the arguments to evaluate someone’s standpoint. If you’re one of us, your views are accurate — if not, they are false. And whether they match objective reality or not doesn’t matter.
This is not a helpful attitude, for sure. But I don’t think this way of thinking applies across the board and holds everyone in its grip, nor does it “distort our very perceptions of what is real”.
These are the exaggerations in the generalization about all of us, living in different, polarizing realities that I want to call into question.
To give you an idea, while I think this statement lays it on a little thick, I have more sympathy for interpretations along these lines:
For all the lamenting about the “post-truth era,” normal epistemic standards still apply to most thinking people. “Post truth” is a lament that signifies that the speaker has lost the ability to foist their impressions on an uncritical audience. — Promethean Groan
Remember the bit about “normal epistemic standards still applying”. It’s crucial.
In Real Life I: Anti-Truth Motives
Now, onto the argumentative part.
In our online reality, the desire for polarization and quick hits outweighs behaviors, which make politics effective — empathy, adaptability, moderateness. In the war of attention, those who want their presence noted (and our votes), have every reason to over-represent how she is so different from everyone else (and especially when it comes to those with whom she actually agrees quite a lot!).
Like politicians, journalists face similarly skewed incentives. It is increasingly hard for media outlets to approximate “performative neutrality,” thanks to the anti-truth incentives of ‘outrage porn’ and the need to appease dwindling subscribers for survival. Media survive through advertising, which means above all they must seek scale and reach, especially on social media.
In our online reality, this means that it’s financially more effective to create ‘outrage porn’ and try to go viral in a tribe. Tribal audiences bring intensity, which yields more clicks, views, shares, and reach, which equals more advertising.
The fact that these considerations play a huge role for everyone involved in the public arena when they decide how to report reality back to us, at the very least, makes you take their claims with a grain of salt.
In Real Life II: There Is More, Not Less Exposure
If news outlets and politicians don’t represent the world as being heavily polarized, not because they believe it to be truly so, but because they need to do so to survive, how credible are such ‘descriptions’? And if politicians or tribe leaders don’t emphasize differences with other groups of society, not because these differences are so big, but because their identity depends on it — could it be we’re tricked into believing there is extreme mass polarization going on?
Perhaps we are.
There’s more confrontation with those characters who have other opinions than ever. If you don’t buy it, just ask your grandmother how many non-Christians or non-Muslim or non-Hindus, or whatever — you get the point — she had talked to when she was your age.
We don’t live in filter bubbles but are exposed to conflicting viewpoints more than ever. This shocks and scares us, and the online moment the loud minority is having is nothing but a consequence of that kneejerk response.
Indeed, social media is not at all a veridical mirror image of real life. It would be a mistake to interpret what’s seemingly happening there as an accurate reflection of what’s happening in society.
In Real Life III: Do We Actually Believe Fake News?
Here’s another of these differences.
In an excellent paper, philosopher Regina Rini shows that we have an unstable set of norms for assigning testimonial intentions to social media shares. We tend to treat them as conveying our interlocutors’ testimonial approval, yet we also sometimes accept that “a retweet is not an endorsement.”
Does social media sharing count as an endorsement? When my Facebook-friend posts a link to a fake news story about Trump deporting Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, without further comment, is she asserting the content of that story?
Fake news stories turn up in our social media feeds, evidently endorsed by people whom they trust (to some degree), and it’s natural to believe what trusted friends tell you. Many of us implicitly assume that our social media interlocutors do believe what they share, even though we are vaguely aware they may later disclaim it.
The model is like this: I read a story on social media, shared by one or two of my co-partisan friends. The story is shocking, and I am vaguely aware that my friends’ communicative intentions are ambiguous. Maybe they aren’t really putting their imprimatur on this story. But I know that these friends share my partisan affiliation, hence many of my normative values. They wouldn’t lie to me, right? They would exercise reasonable judgment about balancing confidence in important information, right? They wouldn’t be confused about the relevance of this information to assessing [for example] a candidate’s character, right?” — Regina Rini
It’s this ambiguity that allows fake news to slip through. And it is the unclarity in these norms that gives the false impression we’re all believing crazy things when we post or share or like or retweet them.
In Real Life IV: There Is More, Not Less, Agreement
So far, we’ve seen that we have reasons to believe much hassle about how many deep disagreements there are in our society is based on momentary anxiety and ambiguous norms regarding social media testimony. This angst is caused by the breaking down of traditional societal divisions lines that have led to more, not less, exposure to people with radically different worldviews. On top of that, politicians and journalists — edged on by perverse incentives — exploit this sentiment. The resulting online potpourri and fighting is not a correct picture of what people believe to be true reality or perceive as real (to go back to the quotes of the beginning).
There are also other (statistical) facts hinting at the same conclusion.
A few weeks ago, Facebook announced it had destroyed more than 2 billion fake accounts last year. As Vox calculated, this means that at the beginning of 2019, there were as many real accounts as there were fake accounts that were destroyed in the past twelve months
In other words: the fight for online attention, for likes, clicks, and shares, and the battle driven by polarization, is, for the most part, a construction.
The profiles, the friendships, the reactions: with enough fake accounts, a town councilor from any place or a representative from any small minority can also pump himself up into an online giant.
Consider some more numbers.
- The yellow vests: except in Paris, they made themselves so large online that all camera crews were ready when they put demonstrations on the online agenda — after which hardly any real-life protesters showed up offline. On the other side of the political spectrum, similar things have happened to right-wing rallies that went big online but no supporters actually cared enough about to attend.
- And where I’m from, The Netherlands, members of the Senate agree on roughly three-quarters of all bills!
The own-realities-and-polarization-with-other-realities narrative sounds plausible but just doesn’t match real-world data.
All You Need to Know
While it may seem otherwise, I don’t believe that most of us confuse true with what’s good for the tribe, believe their echo-chamber to be the true reality, and accordingly think that those who disagree are stupid because, just in virtue of disagreeing, they fail to see reality as it is.
In real life, that’s not how we think. In other words: normal epistemic standards still apply to most people.
I’ve canvassed multiple sources of evidence which suggest our online reality is not representative of how most people act in real life or of what they actually believe, both in terms of what is the true reality and how strongly we disagree with others.
The illusion of polarization results from confusing the loud minority for a majority, mistakenly taking statements intended to cause outrage rather than be accurate at face-value, and erroneously assuming that social media shares are endorsements.
While we look at polarization, we are being cheated, and while we are polarizing, we are cheating ourselves.