Friday, June 26, 2015

Echo Chambers and Funhouse Mirrors: The Internet's Amplification and Distortion of Arguments

I had actually meant to write this a few days ago, in the context of the Charleston shootings. But today the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 5-4 ruling, has issued a major ruling on one of the most visible social issues of the day: same-sex marriage. Interestingly, what I wanted to say still applies so I will say it in this context instead.

Let me first say that I applaud the majority decision, I support it wholeheartedly, and I would have been surprised had it gone differently or, if that had been the case, that it would have stood for much longer. The tide on this issue has been rushing for the past few years towards marriage equality. I think that the outcome reflects, in a broad sense, where American society wants to go. And I am personally thrilled for my family members and friends who will benefit directly from this ruling.

So what I have to say has nothing to do with the decision itself. Rather, I find in our responses to it tendencies that I see in other major events that become the subject of national conversation.

My main lens on collective conversation tends to be Facebook. This undoubtedly has problems, but a) I don't have accounts on many other social media platforms (esp. Twitter), b) those I do (i.e. LinkedIn) tend not to be very "conversational", and c) I think that Facebook, being the most "mainstream" of our social media, provides a good snapshot of what people are talking and thinking about. So while many of my social science friends can critique my methodology, I think there's something to this.

There has long been a concern that social media have distorted the American social conversation because they create "echo chambers" (my friend Steve Saideman had a nice reflection on this recently). Because they are built on networks of friends, the views we see on Facebook (or any other platform) are often those of the people we agree with. Social media did not create this problem, nor are they the only contributor - viewpoint-specific "news networks" (Fox, MSNBC) and programs (Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, etc.) create much the same effect for folks who get all of their information from one source. Recent arguments have also suggested that we may be doing this in the physical as well as the virtual world, moving to communities that are less ideologically diverse so we can be comfortable around our neighbors.

Whatever the mechanisms, it is certainly true that we like to hang out with people who agree with us. But the problem with doing so, whether online or in person, is not only that we tend to hear our own views reflected back to us (the echo chamber). The problem also isn't that we never hear from dissenting viewpoints. We actually hear a lot about dissenting views - in a very distorted way (the funhouse mirror).

I saw this last week in the social media discussion of the Charleston shootings. Amidst the pain and grief and calls for dialogue to move beyond racism, a lot of my friends (a group that admittedly leans pretty liberal) shared articles about different views. Only they weren't sharing the actual views of others, but instead biased retellings of those views. There was a lot of angry mocking of Fox News, for example, for comments made by some of their guests or hosts.

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality, I'm seeing bits and pieces of the same thing. The favorite target today seems to be Antonin Scalia, whom I have already seen referred to as "unhinged" and "rabid". What folks have been posting is not Scalia's dissenting argument, but a cascade of name-calling tied to a very selected (perhaps even distorted) version of his dissent.

Now, Scalia is both easy and fun to make fun of. His manner on the bench is often acerbic, and he's known to use turns of phrase (one of the favorites being "interpretive jiggery-pokery") that seem almost designed to attract mockery. But all of that is style, not substance. It doesn't speak at all to what he's actually trying to argue.

On a whim, I went and hunted down the entire set of arguments (both the majority position and the three dissents) to the Obergefell et. al. case. I read through Scalia's argument. And while it contains the occasional caustic remark, on the whole it is a reasoned legal and philosophical argument written by a highly intelligent man who gives every appearance of being sincere in his views. I don't agree with his argument as it pertains to this case, but the values that he espouses and the arguments he makes in his dissent are important ones that cannot be lightly dismissed.

This brings me back to our national conversational tendencies. I would guess that the vast majority of liberals, pleased with the outcome of the decision, will be content with using Scalia as an ideological whipping-boy from a distance. In past cases, I have seen my conservative friends do exactly the same - dismissing President Obama, or Elizabeth Warren, or any number of (to their minds) baleful figures with a mixture of snark and revulsion, without every actually listening to what those figures are trying to say. Not everyone does this, but a lot of us do.

When we substitute snark for listening, we destroy the opportunity for important conversations. When we rely on the Huffington Post to tell us "what conservatives really think" or the National Review or Rush to tell us "what liberals really think", all we are doing is driving ourselves deeper into our own ideological rabbit-holes. And then we look around and wonder why our nation is so polarized.

Moreover, we do very real damage with this kind of funhouse mirror discussion. We give ourselves reasons to hate and dismiss the other side. We amplify the very arguments we disagree with - which is counterproductive at best. And we pollute the discussion by recirculating only the most toxic stuff.

For a practical take-home, how about this: resist the urge to repost articles about "the other side" (whatever that other view is) written from your side's point of view. If you want to share, or comment on, differing views at least let them speak in their own voice. Let's do a little less back-slapping within our own tribes and a little more door-opening to let in The Others. We will probably still disagree with them most of the time. But we might learn something useful, and we might hate each other just a little less.

1 comment:

  1. On a related note, Thomas is getting excoriated for making the (eminently reasonable, whether or not he's right) argument, that nobody and no government can take your dignity away from you.