Why Are We Polarized?

Are we bound to follow tribal instincts when logic should lead us across the political aisle?

When I hear that the American political system isn’t broken, but exactly working as designed I can’t help but wonder how this can be true in times of all-encompassing social media, rapid loss of attention, and increasing discrimination of economic opportunity. However Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized claims that, and more, that this working political system is polarized by us as we are getting polarized by it. As confusing as it starts, Klein nevertheless does a fantastic job to elaborate his thoughts throughout ten chapters spread over 268 pages with convincing research and easy-to-read prose.

Frankly, I found this general topic challenging to comprehend. Hence Klein’s book appears to me neither a clear-cut psychological review of polarization nor is it a deep dive into America’s governance and democratic institutions. It comes across as a hybrid of history lessons, democratic ideas, and political media management. In light of such a mess I tend to gravitate to first principles: what is polarization? 

According to Klein “the logic of polarization is to appeal to a more polarized public, (so) political institutions and actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

Explaining polarization with polarization isn’t helpful. After searching for adequate definitions I found myself trapped in deciding between constitutional polarization and political polarization and the iterative sense of polarization. Interpreting Klein’s logic polarization may be a deviation from core political beliefs toward ideological extremes in an effort to reach a new audience. That in turn perpetuates a more extreme behavior of political actors and institutions. As Klein argues:   

“This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and on on.”

It’s not an ideal beginning to a complex story, but it makes the most out of it. Across the first few chapters, Klein dives into the history of the American political system; mainly how Democrats turned liberal and Republicans became conservative. When it comes to group identity, the book dives deeper into the psychological aspects of us voters. 

“We became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more– indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less–but because we came to dislike the opposing party more.”

To put it simply Klein argues we have a stronger loyalty to our group than we have to our own ideology. Add in some cases a strong repulsion of the other group’s belief system. Klein continues:

“The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference. It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups. The deeper our commitment to our group becomes, the more determined we become to ensure our group wins.”

There is plenty of well-established scientific research to concur with this notion. While the psychology of the crowd is one factor in this complex analysis, Klein manages to clarify that our identity, more than our previous system of beliefs, where we live, or who we associate with, dictates our sense of loyalty. And no other entity threatens our identity as much as the media. American media, the press, and political journalism are by nature mouthpieces of certain political powers – and always have been. Following the hotly contested Presidential election in the year 2000, the election of America’s first African-American President in 2008, and the consistently increasing economic gap between those who repair, clean, transport, deliver, and educate our communities and those who (merely) push paper our American identity has never been more called into question as it is today; especially in policy proposals of aspiring presidential candidates. Klein does not shy away from criticizing the media’s contribution to the skewed, partisan landscape:

“If we (the media) decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals–which is what we did–then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and the potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.”

Overall, though, Klein’s book feels like a warm conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in understanding how we got where we are. He offers a clear diagnosis of the current State of the Union without swaying too far into either political camp, but falls short in offering a pathway forward or even mere suggestions on how to bridge the gap between opposing (political) viewpoints; therefore groups. Ezra Klein’s advice is “to pay attention to identity. What identity is that news article invoking? What identity is making you defensive? What does it feel like when you get pushed back into an identity? Can you notice when it happens?”

It is an engaging book that provides insight into the political discourse of America beyond New York or California. While it is well written and researched it feels more like a conversation, a starting point, rather than a solution or a means forward. 

How To Built Community To Influence Elections

Read this book to improve your civic engagement and create a more meaningful neighborhood.

Eitan Hersh is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. In his latest book “Politics Is For Power – How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change” he decries the virtue signaling that is political hobbyism on social media and makes a case for grassroots politics. 

Political hobbyism can be identified as short-lived, current affair commentary on social media that results in no real-world change. It delivers a feeling of participation. We all have done it to some extent. Yet, Hersh finds, especially the political left fails to recognize that real political change is driven by a few selected local leaders who listen to the needs of a community. Consistent in-person community outreach builds a stronger community that is rather aligned than divided on overarching, public policy programs. 

“Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”

Source: College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics by Eitan Hersh

Among the many well-told stories in this book, Hersh offers a prominent example of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. For a brief moment in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections Schultz entertained an independent bid for the highest position in this country. Remember, Starbucks was built over decades of carefully choosing product ingredients, the ambiance of its stores, and hiring local leaders to represent its brand. It was a slow expansion from Seattle to the greater Pacific Northwest and year by year to more States across the United States. But when it came to his own campaign bid, Schultz seemingly forgot his patient business acumen but threw endless money at cable news and talk shows to make his case in less than eighteen months. Obviously, from the outside and in hindsight, this approach reeks of failure when it took years to build the Starbucks brand nationwide. Why would he seriously believe to reach the same market plurality in the political domain in just eighteen months? Because politics were only a hobby to Howard Schultz. 

“Politics Is For Power” is appropriate for community leaders, new and seasoned neighbors, social justice warriors and keyboard cowboys, and anybody really interested in improving civic engagement in their community. Personally, I loved the idea of using political donations instead of buying political ads to rather spend it on support for local community organizers who engage in face-to-face conversations with the local community and actually listen. Crafting impactful, social and economic policies is an arduous process that can only succeed if all voices of society have been heard. Furthermore, Hersh created captivating storylines condensed and spread across each chapter, which really brings home his point about taking action requires getting out the door, talking to your neighbors, and listen. 

Lastly, if you’re still reading, I feel it’s necessary to call out editorial ingenuity when it is due: this book has 217 pages, 22 chapters, and encompasses 5 parts. Each page is formatted for the reader’s pleasure. Chapters are comprehensive yet not longer than a commute to work would be. And its parts really provide a structure around the argument that highlights the thoughtful content of the book. Kudos, Simon & Schuster!

Ballistic Books: Social Media

What would society look like without social media? Where would technology be if it weren’t for Meta, formerly known as Facebook, pushing the boundaries of human attention and social connectivity? When Facebook became “a thing” I was hesitant to create an account because, at the time, I had a MySpace and an ICQ account, and SMS was sufficient for staying connected with my community. Little did I know, how meaningful Facebook would become by allowing me to create international connections, find people to do local activities with, and reminisce on “the good ol’ days”. An Ugly Truth tells a different story. It alleges Facebook prioritized platform growth over user security and content integrity. While bashing Facebook is a sure-fire way of getting attention in a market that competes for attention, I look forward to learning more about the complex machine that operates Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. From No Filter, I hope to learn more about how Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger built their photo-sharing app that would become Instagram. Apparently, it’s building on the American drama film The Social Network which tells Mark Zuckerberg’s ideation and launch of thefacebook.com. Lastly, Hatching Twitter is an honorary mention. It’s a story that should be a movie. I read it a while back and, in light of Elon Musk running it into the ground, will likely read it again.

Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.

  1. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang 

Sheera Frenkel is a technology reporter based in San Francisco. You can find Sheera Frenkel on Twitter @sheeraf. Cecilia Kang is a technology reporter for The New York Times. You can find Cecilia Kang on Twitter @ceciliakang

  1. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

Sarah Frier is a technology reporter for Bloomberg News out of San Francisco. You can find Sarah Frier on Twitter @sarahfrier

  1. Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
(Source: Sage)

Nick Bilton is a British-American journalist, author, and filmmaker. He is currently a special correspondent at Vanity Fair. You can find  Nick Bilton on Twitter @nickbilton

Who Holds The Pen? 

Richard Stengel’s memoir illustrates the complexity of modern government.

Richard Stengel served as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs alongside the 68th Secretary of State John Kerry. In his memoir “Information Wars – How We Lost The Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It” he recounts his time working for the Obama administration. Arguably, the Obama administration was a forward-leaning government calibrated to modern technology with a pulse on current affairs. Stengel really captures the struggles that even a modern government must overcome. From protocol and etiquette at meetings to the clearance protocol of social media use and other technology. When recounting his efforts to drive the democratic narrative online, combatting bad actors in the process, Stengel observed: 

“One of the things I’d noticed in government is that people who had never been in media, who had never written a story or produced one, […] who didn’t understand audiences or what they liked, seemed to think it was easy to create content. People had the illusion that because they consumed something, they understood how it worked.

This fallacy applies to many more segments of society, not just government. It illustrates how technology is misunderstood by the public who tend to forget that policy decisions and strategy at scale, impacting thousands if not millions of people, are incredibly tough to fine-tune and nuanced at all levels. Stengel offers an example of counter-messaging the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram social media by leveraging the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). Boko Haram had kidnapped some 276 girls from a secondary school in Nigeria. The idea was simple: show support for the kidnapped girls in an online campaign. Stengel approved the content for the campaign. Ten days later, he found out the content was objected by the Africa bureau. After updating the content with feedback from the Africa bureau, the content was approved but not through the clearance process because the Bureau of Intelligence and Research had objected on those changes. Ten days of silence on social media is tantamount to a lifetime of non-existence. Stengel went on learning that things he’d expect to take hours would take days; things he’d expect to take days would take weeks; things that he’d expect to take weeks would take months. Many more governmental departments default to “No” than to a “Yes”. It really made me think about new ways to improve government. But it is also an urgent reminder that government needs disruption.  

Another interesting lesson from this book is the balance between diplomacy, career development and leadership. His interactions with the Secretary of State John Kerry testify to Stengel’s business acumen despite working for the government. About Kerry Stengel notes:

“He’s permanently leaning forward. That was his attitude about the world as well. To plunge in, to move forward, to engage. There’s no knot he doesn’t think he can untie, no breach that he can’t heal. For him, the cost of doing nothing was always higher than that of trying something.

It’s almost bittersweet to read these lines of optimism considering the slow pace the State Department moved during these heydays of ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram all the way leading up to the Russian influence operation to undermine the 2016 US Presidential elections. Then again, Stengel really captured the predicament of the government at the time when he writes:

“What few of us understood at that point was that our opponents– Russia as well as ISIS –wanted us to get into a back-and-forth with them. It validated what they were doing, brought us down to their level, and besides, we weren’t as good at it as they were. They won when they got us to respond in kind.”

Engagement and impressions are everything online. Capturing our attention is the success metric for effective influence operations. This can be an overt diplomatic endeavor, like the Iran Nuclear deal, that sought to bring the United States and Iran a step closer together, or it can be a clandestine operation, like ‘Glowing Symphony’, that sought to deplatform ISIS and eradicate their narrative online. 

Information Wars should have been titled with a more accurate title. Other than that I found Stengel’s memoir quite illuminating when it comes to government processes and how the State Department aligns itself with the current administration. As a journalist-by-trade and former managing editor of Time Magazine, Stengel’s writing style is simple and narrating. The density could have been better. It sometimes feels like a magazine. Across 7 parts and numerous chapters a lot of personal anecdotes and experience dilute the lessons of this book. Without that, this 314 page memoir could have been a concise non-fiction on influence operations and a concise memoir about his life. 

When Did Truth Die?

Michiko Kakutani offers an eloquent compilation that explains the decay of veracity in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, it skillfully weaves together almost a century of painful lessons from history, literature, and politics.

The Death of Truth was highly scrutinized by media publishers, book critiques, and the greater literature community at the time of its publication. Google the reviews. As the title suggests The Death of Truth – Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani advocates for the truth to be added to the list of casualties of the former Trump administration. Reading this book at the end of 2021, almost exactly one year since Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States, and almost 3 ½ years after its initial release, I can’t help but view this book as a compilation of essays that are really bite-sized opinion pieces. This makes for an immersive, moving reading experience, but also renders the message of The Death of Truth to be the mere same polemic it appeared to seek to quash. Admittedly, a provocative diagnosis of our current political landscape is hardly done in the total absence of partisanship. 

Kakutani brilliantly threads her analysis by starting with a historical review of culture wars and past regimes’ handling of truth. She gradually escalates her storyline to the twenty-first century with humanity’s dependency on social media, algorithmic subversion of political decision making, and foreign actors exploiting the American focus on self-pursuit at the expense of civil responsibilities. In her epilogue, Kakutani warns of the continued erosion of democratic institutions. We, the people, must protect the democratic institutions that uphold the roof of democracy. At the same time, there won’t be any easy remedies or shortcuts that will fix our polarized, cultural division. Times like these require deft civil disobedience of the many that are publicly rejecting the idea of cynicism and resignation pursued by the totalitarian few. 

People who are likely to read this book are unlikely to learn something new, but I believe it’s still worth it for the extensive reading resources provided by Kakutani. Her remarkably colorful writing style and sobering outlook on the future state of veracity in the United States won’t disappoint either. NPR’s Michael Schaub nailed it when he wrote: “The Death of Truth is a slim volume that’s equally intriguing and frustrating, an uneven effort from a writer who is, nonetheless, always interesting to read.”

Find A Behavioral Solution To Your Product Design Problem

Our actions are (very much) predictable and can be influenced.

Humans are complicated. Humans are different. Humans are irrational, unpredictable, and emotional. In DECODING the WHY – How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design author Nate Andorsky embraces all these idiosyncrasies by answering these underlying questions: what makes us do what we do and how can product designers learn from these behavioral patterns to build better products. 

Andorsky takes the reader on a story-driven adventure into behavioral science. Decoding the Why lives in a constant tension between the evolution of product design and human behavior. It describes psychological concepts and how they influence product designs. It provides practical guidance on how to meet the consumer’s cognitive state before intent is formed and how to use behavioral science to nudge the consumer towards action. For example in the part about ‘Meeting Our Future Selves’ Andorsky reviews Matthew McConaughey’s iconic Oscar acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

“When I was 15 years old I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I gotta think about that, give me a couple of weeks.’

This Person comes back two weeks later and says, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I replied, ‘You know what, I thought about it and it’s me in ten years.’

So I turn twenty-five. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, ‘So are you a hero?’ I replied, ‘No, no, no, not even close.’ ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Cause my hero is me at thirty-five,’ I said.

See, every day, every week, every month, every year of my life, my hero is always ten years away. I’m never going to meet my hero, I am never going to obtain that, and that’s totally fine because it gives me somebody to keep on chasing.”

If humans were rational we’d all pursue the rational thing to maximize our time and energy. However, we are not rational. All too often we give in to the instant gratification that lies in the moment by putting off the thing that helps us tomorrow. This concept is also known as Hyperbolic Discounting. Andorsky walks the reader through the obstacles that keep us from meeting our future selves by reviewing methods such as reward systems, gamification models, commitment devices, and goal setting, all of which, are used to inform product design. 

If I ever write a book, I will likely attempt to create a similar structure and flow. Andorsky did an excellent job by breaking down the content into easily digestible parts. Each part tells a captivating story concluding in an engaging question for the reader. While the subject matter could have easily been told with jargon and psychology terminology, the author consistently uses clear and non-academic language to explain a variety of behavioral and psychological concepts and theories. Altogether this makes for an accessible page-turner offering a wide range of practical applications. 

Taking a birds-eye view on Decoding the Why, I feel, I could come to two conclusions that could not be further apart: (1) Andorsky answers the eternal question of what makes us do what we do and how product designers can learn from these behavioral patterns to build better products or (2) Andorsky provides ammunition to weaponize psychology in order to calibrate intrusive technology that can be used to manipulate and exploit human behavior. Whatever your position is on the question of using behavioral science to influence user behavior, this book is a gateway to explore psychological concepts, and it is an important read for changemakers. It can be used for good, or, it can be used to inform better public policy. I’d rank Decoding the Why as a must-read for product designers, product managers, and anyone working to improve user experiences in technology. 

Twitter And Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci takes an insightful look at the intersection of protest movements and social media.

Ever since I’ve read Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd”, I’ve been fascinated with crowd psychology and social networks. In “Twitter And Tear Gas – The Power And Fragility Of Networked Protests” Zeynep Tufekci connects the elements of protest movements with 21st-century technology. In her work, she describes movements as

“attempts to intervene in the public sphere through collective, coordinated action. A social movement is both a type of (counter) public itself and a claim made to a public that a wrong should be righted or a change should be made.”

In times of far-reaching social media platforms, restricted online forums, and end-to-end encrypted private group chats, the means to organize a protest movement have drastically changed. 

“Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first march or protest. (…) The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools. However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, the new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a ‘tactical freeze’. Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation or “decapitation,” it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.”

While these movements often catch the general public by surprise, it really does come down to timing and committment by a group of decentralized actors. These actors, who come from all walks of life, seek to connect with others as rapidly as possibly by leveraging the unrestricted powers of social media. Social media creates ties with a variety of supporters. Tufekci points out

“people who seek political change, the networking that takes place among people with weak ties is especially important. People with strong ties already share similar views (…). Weaker ties may be far-flung and composed of people with varying political and social ties. Also, weak ties may create bridges to other clusters of people in a way strong ties do not.”

Protest movements predating social media often shared similarities with multi-day music festivals, overnight camps or even military training exercises. They instill a sense of camaraderie which attracts a certain type of indivudal. Today’s protest movements differ from those days in that they can erupt quickly, but fall apart as fast as they came to be. Still 

“many people are drawn to protest camps because of the alienation they feel in their ordinary lives as consumers. Exchanging products without money is like reverse commodity fetishism: for many, the point is not the product being exchanged but the relationship that is created.”

In addition the speed at which modern movements operate serves as an invitation for individuals disconnected from broader society or individuals who simply prefer the short-lived special operation to right a policy wrong over the long-term work required to build and maintain relationships that are powerful enough to organically drive a change of policy.

“Some online communities not only are distant from offline communities but also have little or no persistence or reputational impact. (…) Social scientists call this the “stranger-on-a-train” effect, describing the way people sometimes open up more to anonymous strangers than to the people they see around every day. (…) Such encounters can even be more authentic and liberating.”

Tufekci spends much time on describing the evolution of social interactions in a networked space, the social inertia that needs to be managed in order to pick up momentum, but she also offers some insights on defensive considerations to make a protest movement work. First and foremost, a protest movement garners attention online, which in turn creates an influx of supporters. It will also attract opposition from private individuals, political opponents, and current political leaders. Those in power had previously relied upon, and in some countries still rely upon, censorship and suppression of information. Twitter and other social media platforms have disrupted this control over the narrative:

“To be effective, censorship in the digital era requires a reframing of the goals of censorship not as a total denial of access, which is difficult to achieve, but as a denial of attention, focus, and credibility In the networked public sphere, the goal of the powerful often is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out, but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people.”

I apologize for using a wealth of quotes from her book, but it’s best described there, in her own words. Protests movements are here to stay. Understanding how democratic nations evolve their policies, right political wrongs, and influence authoritarian nations through subtle policy, online protest and real-world tear gas confrontation will help us make more informed decisions as we pick our political battles. Zeynep Tufekci put together a well-researched account that helps to make sense of the most important, controversial online protest movements from the Occupy Gezi/Wall Street movements to the Eqyptian Revolution to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter and MeToo or the March For Our Lives. There are two noticeable drawbacks of this otherwise excellent book. First, the chapters appear uncoordinated within the book and are too long. The reader can’t take a breather without feeling to lose a thought. Second, her examples are chronologically disconnected from the actual movements. While this helps to illustrate a certain point, I found it to be a confusing feat. Twitter And Tear Gas has its own website. Check it out at https://www.twitterandteargas.org/ or reach out to the author on Twitter @zeynep 

Redefining The Media

LiveLeak was a video-sharing website for uncensored depictions of violence, human rights violations, and other world events – often shocking content. Earlier this year, the website reportedly shut down. Surprisingly, there is little detailed academic research on LiveLeak. While available research centers around internet spectatorship of violent content, this 2014 research paper discusses the communication structures created by LiveLeak; arguably redefining social media as we know it.

tl;dr

This research examines a video-sharing website called LiveLeak to be able to analyze the possibilities of democratic and horizontal social mobilization via Internet technology. In this sense, we take into consideration the Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophical conceptualization of “rhizome” which provides a new approach for activities of online communities. In the light of this concept and its anti-hierarchical approach, we tried to discuss the potentials of network communication models such as LiveLeak in terms of emancipating the use of media and democratic communication. By analyzing the contextual traffic on the LiveLeak for a randomly chosen one week (first week of December 2013) we argue that this video-sharing website shows a rhizomatic characteristic.

Make sure to read the full paper titled An Alternative Media Experience: LiveLeak by Fatih Çömlekçi and Serhat Güney at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300453215_An_Alternative_Media_Experience_LiveLeak

liveleak
(Source: Olhar Digital)

LiveLeak has often been referred to as the dark side of YouTube. LiveLeak had similar features to engage its existing userbase and attract new users. Among them were Recent Items, Channels, and Forums. Furthermore, immersive features such as Yoursay, Must See, or Entertainment. Its central difference to mainstream video-sharing websites was the absence of content moderation. Few exceptions, however, were made with regard to illegal content, racist remarks, doxing, or obvious propaganda of terrorist organizations. LiveLeak first attained notoriety when it shared a pixelated cellphone video of the execution of former dictator Saddam Hussein. 

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described aborescence, a tree model of thinking and information sharing whereby a seed idea grows into a concept that can be traced back to the seed idea, as the fundamental way of Western logic and philosophy. In our postmodern world, they argue, arborescence no longer works but instead, they offer the concept of rhizomatic structures. In essence, a rhizomatic structure is a decentralized social network with no single point of entry, no particular core, or any particular form of unity. Fatih Çömlekçi and Serhat Güney describe rhizomes as a

“swarm of ants moving along in an endless plateau by lines. These lines can be destroyed by an external intervention at one point but they will continue marching in an alternative and newly formed way/route”

Most social media networks are built around arborescence: a user creates an account, connects with friends and all interactions can be traced back to a single point of entry. LiveLeak resembled rhizomes. Content that circulated on its platform had not necessarily a single point of entry. It was detached from the uploader and often shared with little context. Therefore it was able to trigger a social mobilization around the particular content from all kinds of users; some with their real-life personas, most anonymously but none connected in an arborescent way. Another interesting feature about LiveLeak was its reversal of the flow of information. Western media outlets define the news. LiveLeak disrupted this power structure by, for example, leaking unredacted, uncensored footage of atrocities committed by the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, users in third-world countries were able to share footage from local news channels which were not visible in the mainstream media. Taken together, LiveLeak enabled social movements such as the Arab Spring or the Ukraine Revolution. Arguably, the video-sharing platform influenced public opinion about police brutality in the United States fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. Undoubtedly, its features contributed to a more defined reality, that is less whitewashed. LiveLeak played a seminal role in establishing our modern approach to communication moderation on social media networks.

Learn To Discern: How To Take Ownership Of Your News Diet

I am tired of keeping up with the news these days. The sheer volume of information is intimidating. It creates a challenge to filter relevant news from political noise only to then begin a process of analyzing the information for its integrity and accuracy. I certainly struggle to identify subtle misinformation when faced with it. That’s why I became interested in the psychological triggers weaved into the news to better understand my decision-making and conclusions. Pennycook and Rand wrote an excellent research paper on the human psychology of fake news.

tl;dr

We synthesize a burgeoning literature investigating why people believe and share false or highly misleading news online. Contrary to a common narrative whereby politics drives susceptibility to fake news, people are ‘better’ at discerning truth from falsehood (despite greater overall belief) when evaluating politically concordant news. Instead, poor truth discernment is associated with lack of careful reasoning and relevant knowledge, and the use of heuristics such as familiarity. Furthermore, there is a substantial disconnect between what people believe and what they share on social media. This dissociation is largely driven by inattention, more so than by purposeful sharing of misinformation. Thus, interventions can successfully nudge social media users to focus more on accuracy. Crowdsourced veracity ratings can also be leveraged to improve social media ranking algorithms.


Make sure to read the full paper titled The Psychology of Fake News by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661321000516

This recent research paper by psychologists of the University of Regina and the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a closer look at the sources of political polarization, hyperpartisan news, and the underlying psychology that influences our decision-making on whether news is accurate or misinformation. They answered the question of why people fall for misinformation on social media. Lessons that can be drawn from this research will be helpful to build effective tools to intercept and mitigate misinformation online. It will further advance our understanding of the underlying human psychology when interacting with information on social media. And while the topic could fill entire libraries, they limited their scope of research to individual examples of misinformation rather than organized, coordinated campaigns of inauthentic behavior excluding the spread of disinformation.

So, Why Do People Fall For Fake News?

There are two fundamental concepts that explain the psychological dynamics when faced with misinformation: truth discernment aims to establish a belief in the relative accuracy of news that is greater than known-to-be false information on the same event. Basically, this concept is rooted in active recognition and critical analysis of the information to capture people’s overall beliefs. Another concept that is used to explain why people fall for misinformation is the idea of truth acceptance. Thereunder the accuracy of news is not a factor but the overall belief of it. Instead of critical analysis of the information people chose to average or combine all available information, true or false, to establish an opinion about the veracity of the news that captures people’s overall belief. This commonly results in a biased perception of news. Other concepts related to this question look at motives. Political motivations can influence people’s willingness to reason based on their partisan, political identity. In other words, when faced with news that is consistent with their political beliefs, the information is regarded as true; when faced with news that is inconsistent with their political beliefs, the information is regarded as false. Loyalty to their political ideology can become so strong that it can override an apparent falsehood for the sake of party loyalty. Interestingly, the researchers found that political partisanship has much less weight than the actual veracity of news when assessing information. Misinformation that is in harmony with people’s political beliefs is less trustworthy than accurate information that is against people’s political beliefs. They also discovered that people tend to be better at analyzing information that is in harmony with our political beliefs, which helps to discern truth from falsehood. But if people hardly fall for misinformation consistent with our political beliefs, which characteristics make people fall for misinformation?

“People who are more reflective are less likely to believe false news content – and are better at discerning between truth and falsehood – regardless of whether the news is consistent or inconsistent with their partisanship”

Well, this brings us back to truth discernment. Belief in misinformation is commonly associated with overconfidence, lack of reflection, zealotry, delusionality, or overclaiming where an individual acts on completely fabricated information as a self-proclaimed expert. All of these factors indicate an inability of analytical thinking. On the opposite side of the spectrum, people determine the veracity of information through cognitive reflection and tapping into their relevant existing knowledge. This can be general political knowledge, a basic understanding of established scientific theories, or simple online media literacy.

“Thus, when it comes to the role of reasoning, it seems that people fail to discern truth from falsehood because they do not stop to reflect sufficiently on their prior knowledge (or have insufficient or inaccurate prior knowledge) – and not because their reasoning abilities are hijacked by political motivations.” 

The researchers found that the truth has little impact on sharing intentions. They describe three types of information-sharing on social media:

  • Confusion-based sharing: this concept encompasses a genuine belief in the veracity of the information-shared (even though the person is mistaken)
  • Preference-based sharing: this concept places political ideology, or related motives such as virtue signaling, above the truth of the information shared accepting misinformation as a collateral
  • Inattention-based sharing: thereunder people are only intending to share accurate information, but are distracted by the social media environment

Steps To Own What You Know

If prior knowledge is a critical factor to identify misinformation, then familiarity with accurate information goes a long way. An awareness of familiar information is critical to determine whether the information presented is the information that you already know or a slightly manipulated version. Be familiar with social media products. What does virality look like on platform XYZ? Is the uploader a verified actor? What is the source of the news? In general, sources are a critical signal to determine veracity. The more credible and established a source, the likelier the information is well-researched and accurate. Finally, a red flag for misinformation is emotional headlines, provocative captions, or shocking images.

Challenges To Identify Misinformation

Truth is not a binary metric. In order to determine the veracity of news, a piece of information may be falsified or laced with inaccuracies or compared against established, known information. Therefore the accuracy and precision, or overall quality, of a machine learning classifier for misinformation hinges on the clarity of the provided training data times the depth of exposure on the platform where the classifier will be deployed. Another challenge to consider is the almost ever-changing landscape of misinformation. Misinformation is rapidly evolving, convulsing into conspiracy theories and maybe (mistakenly) supported by established influencers and institutions. This creates problems to discern the elements of a news story, which undermines the chances to determine accuracy. Inoculation (deliberate exposure to misinformation to improve recognition abilities) is in part ineffective because people fail to stop, reflect and consider the accuracy of the information at all. Therefore successful interventions to minimize misinformation may start with efforts to slow down interactions on social media. This can be achieved by changing the user interface to introduce friction and prompts to help induce active reflection. Lastly, human fact-checking is not scalable. For so many reasons: time, accuracy, integrity, etc. Leveraging a community-based (crowd-sourced) fact-checking model might be an alternative until a more automated solution will be ready. Twitter has recently introduced experiments with these types of crowd-sourced products. Their platform is called Birdwatch.

This research paper didn’t unearth breakthrough findings or new material. It rather helped me to learn more about the dynamics of human psychology when exposed to a set of information. Looking at the individual concepts people use to determine the accuracy of information, the underlying motives that drive our attention, and the dynamics for when we decide to share news made this paper a worthwhile read. Its concluding remarks to improve the technical environment by leveraging technology to facilitate a more reflective, conscious experience of news on social media leaves me optimistic for better products to come. 

The Future Of Political Elections On Social Media

Should private companies decide what politician people will hear about? How can tech policy make our democracy stronger? What is the role of social media and journalism in an increasingly polarized society? Katie Harbath, a former director for global elections at Facebook discusses these questions in a lecture about politics, policy and democracy. Her unparalleled experience as a political operative combined with her decade long experience working on political elections across the globe make her a leading intellectual voice to shape the future of civic engagement online. In her lecture to honor the legacy of former Wisconsin State senator Paul Offner she shares historical context on the evolution of technology and presidential election campaigns. She also talks about the impact of the 2016 election and the post-truth reality online that came with the election of Donald Trump. In her concluding remarks she offers some ideas for future regulations of technology to strengthen civic integrity as well as our democracy and she answers questions during her Q&A.

tl;dr

As social media companies face growing scrutiny among lawmakers and the general public, the La Follette School of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin–Madison welcomed Katie Harbath, a former global public policy director at Facebook for the past 10 years, for a livestreamed public presentation. Harbath’s presentation focused on her experiences and thoughts on the future of social media, especially how tech companies are addressing civic integrity issues such as free and hate speech, misinformation and political advertising.

Make sure to watch the full lecture titled Politics and Policy: Democracy in the Digital Age at https://lafollette.wisc.edu/outreach-public-service/events/politics-and-policy-democracy-in-the-digital-age (or below)

Timestamps

03:04 – Opening remarks by Susan Webb Yackee
05:19 – Introduction of the speaker by Amber Joshway
06:59 – Opening remarks by Katie Harbath
08:24 – Historical context of tech policy
14:39 – The promise of technology and the 2016 Facebook Election
17:31 – 2016 Philippine presidential election
18:55 – Post-truth politics and the era of Donald J. Trump
20:04 – Social media for social good
20:27 – 2020 US presidential elections 
22:52 – The Capitol attacks, deplatforming and irreversible change
23:49 – Legal aspects of tech policy
24:37 – Refresh Section 230 CDA and political advertising
26:03 – Code aspects of tech policy
28:00 – Developing new social norms
30:41 – More diversity, more inclusion, more openness to change
33:24 – Tech policy has no finishing line
34:48 – Technology as a force for social good and closing remarks

Q&A

(Click on the question to watch the answer)

1. In a digitally democratized world how can consumers exercise their influence over companies to ensure that online platforms are free of bias?

2. What should we expect from the congressional hearing on disinformation?

3. Is Facebook a platform or a publisher?

4. Is social media going to help us to break the power of money in politics?

4. How have political campaigns changed over time?

5. What is the relationship between social media and the ethics of journalism?

6. Will the Oversight Board truly impact Facebook’s content policy?

7. How is Facebook handling COVID-19 related misinformation?

8. What is Facebook’s approach to moderating content vs encryption/data privacy?

9. Does social media contribute to social fragmentation (polarization)? If so, how can social media be a solution for reducing polarization?

10. What type of regulation should we advocate for as digitally evolving voters?

11. What are Katies best and worst career memories? What’s next for Katie post Facebook?

Last but not least: Katie mentioned a number of books (and a blog) as a recommended read that I will list below: