Saturday, November 10, 2018


Some of my posts recently have mentioned the work of @zeynep and others on the polarizing effects of social media platforms, especially YouTube.

But this phenomenon is not restricted to the Internet: traditional mass media is subject to similar effects. Following an extraordinary confrontation between CNN and the White House, Michael Massing reviews CNN's political coverage and finds it to be extremely one-sided. It appears that Trump and CNN each benefits from constantly attacking the other. Massing calls this codependency, but I believe a more accurate term would be symmetrical schismogenesis. This concept, originally developed by Bateson and elaborated by some of his followers including Jackson and Watzlawick, refers to the situation where two parties mirror each other, the behaviour of each serving to reinforce the behaviour of the other.

Who benefits from this polarization? The media platforms (YouTube, CNN) are essentially selling eyeballs to companies that want to advertise stuff. This is not just about the number of eyeballs but the number of eyeballs in relevant demographic categories. Thus for example gender or socioeconomic polarization may be helpful to this mission if it helps produce an audience that is particularly receptive to whatever is being advertised. However, polarization can also produce effects that are unwelcome to risk-averse advertisers - for example, associating their brands with controversial content, or even exposing them to the risk of consumer boycotts.

Writing in 2013, Markus Prior notes the correlation between cable news consumption and political polarization, but also notes the way that increasing choice on cable networks allows non-partisan viewers to avoid watching cable news altogether. Thus the apparent polarization would appear to be a consequence of a self-selecting audience.

Massing regards CNN's coverage of Trump as "seeming uninformative, repetitive, and nakedly partisan". This echoes a more widespread complaint about 24 hour rolling news: that it fills the airwaves with endless chatter (which Heidegger called Gerede and the Lacanians call Empty Speech.)

On cable news, there are two feedback loops that reinforce this phenomenon. Firstly, the partisanship alienates non-partisan viewers, thus further concentrating the audience. Secondly, people with genuine knowledge and insight quickly discover that the platform doesn't give them a fair opportunity to communicate to an open-minded audience, and therefore abandon the platform in favour of those who are happy to spout dogma on a variety of topics.

On YouTube, these two feedback loops are less in evidence. There is a wealth of good content on YouTube if you know where to look, including Zeynep Tufekci herself talking about this very phenomenon. (But just compare the numbers of views of selected videos on different channels.)
(view numbers as shown on 10 November 2018)

Update (March 2019)

@charlesarthur observes that even politicians aren't always immune to the polarizing effects of social media. He suggests that the closed WhatsApp groups now favoured by all political factions are radicalising their members "so they egg each other on to take more and more extreme positions", and notes that this kind of effect has been understood for a long time. He references Cass Sunstein's 1999 paper on the Law of Group Polarization.

Incidentally, Sunstein is also known for his work on Nudge Theory, which is usually described in terms of nudging people in a beneficial direction. But the psychological mechanisms of the nudge would appear to work in any direction.

Charles Arthur, Social media polarises and radicalises – and MPs aren’t immune to its effects (Guardian 11 March 2019)

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)

Michael Massing, Trump and CNN: Case History of an Unhealthy Codependency (NYR Daily, 9 November 2018)

Markus Prior, Media and Political Polarization (Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2013. 16:101–27)

Jeff Sorensen, 24 Hour News Killed Journalism (HuffPost 20 August 2012)

Cass Sunstein, The Law of Group Polarization (John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91, 1999)

Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication

Wikipedia: Nudge Theory, Schismogenesis

Additional references in the following posts

Ethical Communication in a Digital Age (November 2018)
YouTube Growth Hacking (November 2018)

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