Escaping the echo chamber

Echoes of war image

Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article The Things People Say – a review of Cass R. Sunstein’s “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done“- brought up some fascinating examples of group polarisation.

The brief summary is that in the internet age, we are increasingly associating ourselves with likeminded people and opinions. This not only reinforces our original views, but strengthens them – whether through hearing an argument repeated back, feeling vindicated by hearing others in agreement, listening to alternative reasons for a viewpoint or simply competing with others to lead the line.

My favourite quote from the article is:

At the same time that [the internet] makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable

The most nebulous effects of group polarisation are extremism and misinformation. One such example being the – ridiculous if it weren’t real – “birther movement” in the United States, regarding Barack Obama’s birth certificate (and nationality, and eligibility to hold office).

However, the effect I’m more interested in is an unwillingness to engage with alternative viewpoints. Through our emails, RSS feeds, Twitter streams and selections of articles to click through, we are self-selecting the news and views we read. We lack balance and nuance in our understanding of issues. This can in turn lead to close mindedness.

In 2006, Sunstein performed his own study of fifty political sites. He found that more than four-fifths linked to like-minded sites but only a third linked to sites with an opposing viewpoint. Moreover, many of the links to the opposing side’s sites were offered only to illustrate how “dangerous, dumb, or contemptible the views of the adversary really are.”

Reading the article has led me to consider the effect of group polarisation on me both personally and professionally.

On a personal level:

I feel that my job as a market researcher gives me an understanding of the mood of the general public on certain issues and this grounding (plus my natural cynicism) prevents me getting too carried away with certain thoughts or concepts. I note, for instance, that television is far from dead and that businesses without a presence in Second Life continue to thrive.

However, I do tend to source my news/opinion pieces from the same places. Therefore, I’m going to try a little experiment.

For around half an hour a day, I’m going to spend some time browsing the online edition of a newspaper. A different newspaper, each day of the week. The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mirror and The Independent. I’ll keep this up for a couple of months.

It will hard to gauge the effects this experiment has on me, since there is no “control” to measure how my views have been influenced or changed. Nevertheless, I do expect to experience different levels of agreement, anger, sympathy and incredulity depending on the source and the tone. Of course, the challenge will not be to skip the stories that appear to hold little interest to me. I’ll update on progress in a couple of months

On a professional level:

Tthe idea of group polarisation calls into question the suitability of focus groups as an accurate gauge of opinion. They are fine to pull out exaggerated opinions or caricatures to make a point, but for issues where nuance and balance are required?

This is where the strengths of the internet come back to the fore. Group discussions can be held online. But there is no reason for group participants to be mutually exclusive. Rather than a number of separate groups each recruited to a specific demographic or attitude but covering the same topics, different combinations can be recruited from a “parent group” for specific breakout discussions. For instance, if a discussion guide had five sections, different combinations of groups could be created for each sector.

This is only a thought at the moment, and there are multiple practical obstacles that would need to be overcome. But I like the idea of moving away from reciprocal relationships within research to asymmetrical connections. Moving from a Facebook relationship to a Twitter relationship, if you will.

Compartmentalising facets of our personality and emphasising elements for different audiences is much more akin to real-world interactions, and can also marginalise the threat of group polarisation.

I shall be spending more time mulling this over, but any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paopix/3882291940/

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7 Responses

  1. Yep. Thing is ‘group’ loyalty is almost always associated with disparagement with other groups (football being case in point – most religion another, of course).
    I make a point of following a number of people on twitter who’s opinions i broadly disagree with for this purpose.

    You can never have too much perspective…

    re focus groups – ive never held much truck with them, the subjects are more influenced by their relation to other members of the group to give any meaningful insights. They can, of course, be useful when they are manipulated to confirm the results you have written prior to the group session 😉

  2. Thanks for stopping by Eaon. I did my best not to overtly reference your point in the second paragraph 🙂

    The issue of relationships within focus groups is of course an issue. We set icebreakers and introductions to get each participant comfortable with one another. But comfort with small-talk is very different to comfort with revealing personal opinions. Though as you point out, the “tribalism” of defining oneself by who one is not rather than who one is can indeed overcome this, albeit at a more exaggerated level.

  3. Twitter is interesting I reckon: with most people I tend to follow them for one thing they do and get exposed to the rest – so there are a few market researchers who are on the conservative wing of the US political spectrum (say) who tweet stuff I otherwise would have very little exposure to.

    A friend of mine did the newspaper experiment a few years ago – I think he actually physically bought each title for a week, though he drew the line at the Mail. Don’t remember his conclusions – I will ask!

  4. True, their is that secondary exposure whereby we follow someone for a certain topic, yet still see their tweets on all topics. Tagged tweeting for 2010?

    And I’ve started 2010 by ending my tenure as a newspaper buyer. I’m disillusioned with rising prices and falling content so will stick to online versions. These business decisions may cut costs, but they also cut eyeballs.

    Cheers
    Simon

  5. When I read your stuff I always wonder what the hell you do popping onto my blog every now and then – other than do it for mild amusement.

    Anyway a couple of points …

    I know what you’re saying regarding the lower quality of newspapers, but if we carry on walking away from paid journalism, then we could become a society who only seek out information that backs up their personal views which ultimately undermines freedom of thought, expression and learning.

    I know this is a bit off topic, but it’s already happening and the best way to demonstrate it is by writing acomment on a blog known for a particular point of view that expresses a different opinion and watch the insults immediately fly … with no one accepting or appreciating the alternate point of view.

    A friend of mine said something recently I love … the brain is driven by fear, however if all we fill it with are views and opinions that back up what we already think/know, are we in danger of being less developed and intelligent than previous generations?

  6. When I said a couple of points – I did mean it – it’s just I forgot the 2nd one while writing my rant, ha!

  7. Interesting. A friend of mine in politics buys a range of newspapers to get a range of opinions – even the horrible ones, i.e. the Mail. It’s always good to know what the enemy are thinking!

    Groups are useful for getting both consensus and conflict. You can set up groups dependent upon what you want to achieve.

    Eaon, ‘meaningful insights’ certainly can come from groups and often do. I would say it as much to do with a decent moderator, analysis and interpretation.

    (Granted though, they are not the only tool in the box and qual research has moved on long ago to offer a range of different tools. It’s up to research agencies to offer and research buyers to go for the right ‘tool’ rather than just the safe option. Sometimes groups are the right answer over ‘innovative’ approaches; sometimes, I would agree they aren’t. )

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