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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Internet + Group Polarization = Social Disfunction

On the one year anniversary of the Capitol riots in Washington, DC, there are lots of armchair analysts offering explanations for how American society became this dysfunctional. The blame is laid at the feet of wealth inequality, racial animus, corporate influence (or in the case of Facebook, corporate negligence), and so on. But my research on fake news suggests a much more quotidian explanation.

The internet, combined with human psychological tendencies, jointly give rise to the kind of echo chambers and social disfunction that have plagued Western democracies for the last decade. Let me unpack each ingredient in this recipe.

First, the internet (and electronic media more generally) makes it possible for people to easily find others who share their points of view. Think of it this way. When you grew up, there were all sorts of people in your local community: the guy who likes to restore 1950s era pickups, the girl who wants to talk about alien conspiracy theories, and the family that wants to grow their own food. But it was difficult for these folks to find like-minded people. In a town of 15,000, there are only so many people who have an interest in hiking Mount Everest or reading books about the Civil War.

But the internet closed the gap. Electronic media makes it possible for folks to find like-minded individuals across vast physical distances. There's a Facebook group now for anything under the sun, including Weird Paranormal Discussions, Pantsuit Nation, and Dinosaurs Against Christians Who Are Against Dinosaurs. In other words, technology closed the information-sharing gap for everyone, but closing that gap made the biggest difference for people whose tastes or beliefs were at odds with their local majority.

For example, the internet made it easier to be a Democrat in a rural area or a Republican in a big city. You could connect with like-minded people online despite the fact that you were socially outnumbered when offline. This trend holds for non-political viewpoints, too, like religion, conspiracy theories, alternative health, etc. It would be pretty hard to be an anti-vaxxer in a community of well-informed medical personnel. It's much easier when you have the option to spend a significant portion of your social life online where you can easily join an anti-vaxxer community.

So, the internet is one ingredient in the social disfunction recipe. On to the second: human psychological tendencies. There is such a thing as human nature (sorry, blank-slate liberals), and humans have evolved a suite of psychological mechanisms that help us to survive. Two of those features play a role in our current social disfunction. The first of those is our tendency to cluster with like-minded people. We just LIKE to hang out with people who are like us.

The fact that we naturally prefer to cluster with similar folks should be readily apparent to anyone who ate lunch in a public school cafeteria. The athletes were at one table, nerds at another, bandmates at another, and so forth. Further, dining in my high school cafeteria was almost always segregated by race and typically by gender. This wasn't enforced (I went to high school in the 90s). It was self-selected.

Given our predilection for self-segregation, it's no surprise that when people interact on the web, they cluster in these same ways. Liberals have their groups, conservatives have theirs. Anti-vaxxers cluster in their own corners of the web, and seekers of bigfoot in another. The internet is one, big high school cafeteria where even race plays a role in your browsing history.

No doubt there are a lot of good things that come with self-segregation of this sort. But there are also problems. The most significant one for social harmony comes from the second feature of human psychology to play a role in our recipe: group polarization. In brief, when people cluster in groups that hold homogenous views on X, on average each individual tends to become more extreme about X.

For example, suppose we take 10 people and ask how confident they are that God exists. We then sort the group into two subgroups based on their confidence levels: atheists in one group and theists in another. If we give those two subgroups time together where they can discuss their points of view, share evidence, etc., each group will become MORE confident of their starting position. That means if the average person in the atheistic subgroup starts out being 60% confident that God doesn't exist, after being clustered with her fellow atheists, she'll end up being something more like 80% confident that God doesn't exist. Homogeneity breeds extremism.

It's easy to see how this plays out in the political arena. When liberals cluster in their own groups and conservatives in another, over time, individuals in each camp become more extreme in their views and less likely to compromise with the other side. Before long, it's not surprising that each side can't even agree on the facts, much less how to address them.

That means there are two features of human nature that work against social harmony: our predilection to self-segregate and our tendency towards group polarization. If we live in a social world that is politically, religiously, and racially diverse, these two features of human nature work against us.

So, as we reflect on the mob violence one year ago, we should keep this recipe in mind. The Capitol riot wasn't a violence problem--most Americans agree that violence is sometimes justified to secure political ends (we celebrate the Revolutionary War, after all). Instead, the Capitol riot is a symptom of a deeper social disfunction. That disfunction can be explained in three steps:

  • The internet has allowed us to find and cluster with like-minded people,

  • We naturally prefer to do that instead of being with people who rub us the wrong way, and

  • Thinking about politics, religion, alternative health, and similar topics in homogenous group settings makes all of us more extreme and less willing to compromise with others.

William of Ockham advises us to take the simplest explanation for any phenomenon. In the case of our current social disfunction, we don't need to posit external bad guys (like corporate greed or wealth inequality) or inner malice (like racial animus) to explain our social disfunction. Technology plus human tendency will do the trick.

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