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How the Internet Enables Groupthink

May 4, 2010

“If you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”

– from Obama’s commencement address at the University of Michigan

The idea of blogging about politics doesn’t appeal to me.  It’s a toxic subject dominated by closed minds.  If you take a principled stand on an issue, the people who already agreed with you will still agree.  The ones who disagree will either still disagree, or more likely, they won’t bother to read past your first sentence.  This holds true for partisans on either  side of the depressingly narrow American political spectrum.  For all the dialogue the web generates, 99% of the political discourse is noise from the echo chamber.

In theory, greater breadth of media should improve diversity of opinions.  Before the web, people could only consume the limited options that were available.  For current events, that usually meant your local paper and the evening news.  Now we have so much content at our fingertips that we have to carefully select that tiny sliver of information that we have time to consume.  Material that runs counter to our thinking tends to be more time-consuming, thought-provoking, and challenging.  So we fall into the trap of just looking for content that reaffirms our existing opinions.

No matter what your core beliefs are, the web makes it easy to find others with a similar worldview.  This is why conspiracy theories have an easier time gaining traction than they did before the web.  Groups like the Birthers, who believe Obama was born in Kenya, and the Truthers, who believe the World Trade Center terror attacks were an inside job, have a broad following on the web.  Both groups’ absurd claims will never go away no matter how much evidence piles up to counter the claims.  The great paradox of conspiracy theories is that any evidence that arises to disprove the theory only hardens the conspiracy theorist’s resolve.  In his book, Wingnuts, John Avlon cites polling data that a full 58% of Republicans either do not believe or are not sure if Obama was born in the U.S.   This despite the fact that Obama’s birth certificate has been verified multiple times.

The challenge Obama put forward at the University of Michigan is a fair one.  To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, talking and listening are not a zero-sum proposition.  Listening is tricky when everyone has a megaphone, but it’s worth the effort.

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