Twitter’s Flawed Solution to Political Polarization

On social media, encountering opposing views can make people become even more wedded to their own.

.. Jack Dorsey, repeatedly denied that Twitter’s algorithms are biased against conservative voices. His denials echoed recent statements he has made about the importance of exposing people to opposing political views. Indeed, he announced last month that Twitter was experimenting with new features that would actively expose people to such views.
Mr. Dorsey’s goal of reducing political polarization is commendable. But his proposed solution — disrupting our social media “echo chambers” — may actually make things worse. Forcing Twitter users to encounter political views they disagree with, my research shows, can make them become even more wedded to their own.
.. Scholars were once optimistic that social media could increase bipartisan dialogue by allowing virtually anyone to engage in public debate about politics. Yet mounting evidence suggests that Facebook and Twitter have allowed Republicans and Democrats to further segregate themselves.
.. Then we paid half of them to follow for one month a bot we created that retweeted messages from elected officials and other opinion leaders from the other political party.
.. Instead of reducing political polarization, being exposed to opposing ideas increased it. Republicans who followed a Democratic bot for one month expressed social policy views that were substantially more conservative at the conclusion of the study.
.. Why did some social media users’ political views become more entrenched after we disrupted their echo chambers? One possibility is the structure of Twitter itself. Social psychologists have long argued that positive, intimate contact between members of rival groups across an extended period can produce compromise. But that is not what Twitter offers. Its character limits — combined with the anonymous, spontaneous nature of so many exchanges on the platform — simply may not be conducive to mutual understanding.
.. a first step should be for Twitter to experiment with removing its character limits. Allowing people to voice their opinions in detail will not improve the civility of discourse by itself, but it may facilitate a better competition of ideas and increase the possibility for Democrats and Republicans to understand one another.
.. Twitter should not force its users to view messages from a political party they oppose. Instead, it should create an alert system that makes people aware when they are being exposed predominantly to one point of view. The most pernicious effect of social media echo chambers may be that most people are unaware of how much their political views are influenced by selective exposure to information.

Finally, if Twitter is resolved to expose users to opposing political views, it should focus on doing so with specific issues. Republican and Democratic Twitter users appear unready to have broad conversations about politics. But breaking up the echo chambers that prevent cross-party discussion about market-based solutions to climate change, for example, might be more successful.

Donald Trump Jr., Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the chain-email presidency

Donald Trump Jr. the next day tweeted a picture of his 4-year-old daughter in a Halloween costume, ostensibly to illustrate the downsides of alternative economic systems. “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.”

.. The president appears to get all his news and policy advice from “Fox & Friends,” a morning show that traffics in unsubstantiated rumor and echo-chamber thinking. On Twitter, he retweets bogus crime statistics and memes from alt-right message boards.
.. We’re in the era of the chain-letter administration. 
.. Instead of justifying policy through facts and data (which are being deleted from government websites as we speak), the administration and its allies rely on viral stories and dubious parables to inform the public. And while allegory, anecdote and analogy can be useful in explaining complex policy issues, this administration uses them in all the worst ways. 
.. Except, that’s not socialism. The term has a specific meaning: government control of the means of production and of the distribution of goods and services. It’s not the same thing as coerced sharing.  
.. But the story conveniently elided both the mathematics of income distribution and Trump’s original promise that tax reform would focus on helping the middle class rather than the wealthy.
.. Trump Jr.’s socialism tweet is meant to darken the public perception of any sort of redistribution, associating it with stealing candy from babies rather than undergirding a functioning health insurance system or social-welfare programs to help the less fortunate.

Sanders’s beer story was less an explanation of how taxation works than an attempt to garner sympathy for the wealthy. The end goal is to persuade anyone listening in from the middle class not to grumble when the tax cut for those in higher brackets is larger than for them.

.. When all news is fake and all reporting is leaks and lies, people still need to be informed. That vacuum is filled by folk wisdom shared by family and friends, or rumors and information shortcuts circulated by those who seem as though they’re in the know.

Silicon Valley Can’t Destroy Democracy Without Our Help

But while Russian meddling is a serious problem, the current sentiment toward Silicon Valley borders on scapegoating. Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.

At the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, squarely blamed the tech companies for Russian interference. “You bear this responsibility,” she said. “You’ve created these platforms.”

But we, the users, are not innocent. Some of the Russian propaganda on social media was cribbed from content that was posted by Americans. Yes, social media helps propaganda spread farther and faster. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t force users to share misinformation. Are Americans so easily duped? Or more alarming, did they simply believe what they wanted to believe?

.. The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction, a problem that is worsened by the mainstream media’s loss of credibility when it comes to setting the record straight.
.. Facebook’s algorithms may encourage echo chambers, but that’s because the company figured out what users want.
.. The real problem is that Americans don’t have a shared sense of reality.
.. A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that tried that very experiment. We ran a Silicon Valley start-up called Parlio, which was later acquired by Quora. Parlio aimed to be a social media platform for civil debate. But what we discovered was that people loved the idea of reasoned debate, then decided that those debates took too much time. Thoughtful content was also less likely to go viral, and many users are addicted to the sugar rush of virality. So while people liked the idea of eating their vegetables, they still gravitated to Twitter’s candy aisle.

Social media platforms magnify our bad habits, even encourage them, but they don’t create them. Silicon Valley isn’t destroying democracy — only we can do that.

Why I Was Fired by Google

James Damore says his good-faith effort to discuss differences between men and women in tech couldn’t be tolerated in company’s ‘ideological echo chamber’

How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?

.. We all have moral preferences and beliefs about how the world is and should be. Having these views challenged can be painful, so we tend to avoid people with differing values and to associate with those who share our values. This self-segregation has become much more potent in recent decades. We are more mobile and can sort ourselves into different communities; we wait longer to find and choose just the right mate; and we spend much of our time in a digital world personalized to fit our views.

 .. Google is a particularly intense echo chamber because it is in the middle of Silicon Valley and is so life-encompassing as a place to work. With free food, internal meme boards and weekly companywide meetings, Google becomes a huge part of its employees’ lives. Some even live on campus. For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”
.. Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
.. But echo chambers also have to guard against dissent and opposition. Whether it’s in our homes, online or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.
..In my document, I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment. When I first circulated the document about a month ago to our diversity groups and individuals at Google, there was no outcry or charge of misogyny. I engaged in reasoned discussion with some of my peers on these issues, but mostly I was ignored.
.. Everything changed when the document went viral within the company and the wider tech world. Those most zealously committed to the diversity creed—that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and all people are inherently the same—could not let this public offense go unpunished. They sent angry emails to Google’s human-resources department and everyone up my management chain, demanding censorship, retaliation and atonement.
.. Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views.