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The Internet as a Political Echo Chamber

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Originally posted on April 7, 2016.

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.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).