20200
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2020
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7

Let’s disrupt the logic that’s driving Americans apart

“Although people today hate ‘the other side,’ I remain convinced that once they catch on to the game, they’ll hate being pawns even more.”

Over the past few years, my work has taken me down a political psychology rabbit hole — where the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are no longer reserved for descriptions of policy positions, but now can extend to things like child-rearing styles and even artistic preferences. The verdict is in: Psychological traits are correlated with political ideology, and they also shape how we interact with the world around us. As a result, liberals and conservatives not only hold different political beliefs — they also prefer to create and consume very different kinds of political information (and entertainment).

While this has likely been true for…well…ever, the characteristics, affordances, and economics of our current media environment make this a particularly lucrative situation for industry executives and a particularly devastating proposition for democratic health.

Our media landscape is fragmented in ways that favors the cultivation of tiny, unique, homogenous audiences. And as Lilliana Mason’s work shows, our racial, cultural, and religious identities have come to overlap with our political identities to such a huge extent, that polarization operates on a social — and even primal — level.

This means that media executives can now create programming and content that really efficiently checks all the boxes in one fell swoop: political, psychological, racial, cultural, and even aesthetic. (See Exhibit A: Fox News’ Sean Hannity.)

Meanwhile, our digital media landscape relies on an economic model that rewards and fuels the magnification of these pre-existing differences. Facebook’s algorithms tap into these discrepancies, then use user behaviors to fuel the very machinery that drives us farther apart. And the microtargeting made possible by Facebook ads opens this up to a whole other level of exploitation. (See Exhibits B–Z: Russia.)

As I see it, there are two paths that the American public might take in the context of this political information environment.

Path No. 1: We stay in our silos, passively allowing media moguls and tech platforms to drag us deeper into our corners based our political, psychological, racial, and cultural distinctions. We let the algorithms and micro-targeting mechanisms deliver us belief-confirming disinformation and culturally-divisive tropes, all delivered in the kind of language and packaging that we like best. Then, as our political party preferences increasingly overlap with other less “political” dimensions of our identities, we find ourselves rage-fueled, our fate firmly tied to a war between a socially constructed us that hates the also-socially constructed them. And at that point, we will be…ungovernable.

Or perhaps we choose Path No. 2: We actively work to disrupt the infrastructure, logic, and economic model that are driving the American public apart. Because although many of us (early 2000s “us”) had imagined that digital technologies would empower citizens by facilitating collective action and eroding the control of elite gatekeepers, many of us have had to accept that, without those gatekeepers and with horizontal networks, users become readily exploitable by algorithms and bad actors. The tech platforms once expected to empower and fuel healthy forms of activism, have instead fueled disinformation, taken advantage of susceptible populations, and rewarded hate groups.

Fortunately, human beings have always resisted dominant narratives constructed by the powerful. Even in the most oppressive contexts, with the most centrally controlled media industries, individuals have always found ways to undermine the machinery that constrains them — economically, culturally, politically, socially. And we have this same opportunity today: to deliberately confuse the algorithms and complicate the predictability of our appetites for certain media genres or journalistic story types. We can use the affordances of social media to block certain features, limit aspects of data collection and personalization, and report exploitative and fraudulent content.

And finally, we can recognize that these platforms rely on our quick, emotional, heuristic responses. And so, to mitigate their influence, in the words of Vin Arceneaux and Ryan Vander Wielen, we can “tame our intuition,” perhaps by asking ourselves challenging questions as we engage with content and programming. Questions designed to reduce the role that such curated content is intended to play in our minds and our lives. Questions like:

  • Who created this?
  • How do they want me to react? Why?
  • What do they want me to do? Like, share, react? Why?
  • How are they benefiting from my emotional response?
  • Am I willing to let myself be used by this entity in this way?

Muddying the ever-widening cultural and political chasm is possible, even within the existing logic of our media infrastructure. But will people be adequately motivated to disrupt these categories? Or to exercise restraint in their engagement with political media? Or to challenge their own reflexive emotional responses?

I say yes. Because although people today hate “the other side,” I remain convinced that once they catch on to the game, they’ll hate being pawns even more. I sure hope we choose Path No. 2.

Danna Young is associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware.

Over the past few years, my work has taken me down a political psychology rabbit hole — where the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are no longer reserved for descriptions of policy positions, but now can extend to things like child-rearing styles and even artistic preferences. The verdict is in: Psychological traits are correlated with political ideology, and they also shape how we interact with the world around us. As a result, liberals and conservatives not only hold different political beliefs — they also prefer to create and consume very different kinds of political information (and entertainment).

While this has likely been true for…well…ever, the characteristics, affordances, and economics of our current media environment make this a particularly lucrative situation for industry executives and a particularly devastating proposition for democratic health.

Our media landscape is fragmented in ways that favors the cultivation of tiny, unique, homogenous audiences. And as Lilliana Mason’s work shows, our racial, cultural, and religious identities have come to overlap with our political identities to such a huge extent, that polarization operates on a social — and even primal — level.

This means that media executives can now create programming and content that really efficiently checks all the boxes in one fell swoop: political, psychological, racial, cultural, and even aesthetic. (See Exhibit A: Fox News’ Sean Hannity.)

Meanwhile, our digital media landscape relies on an economic model that rewards and fuels the magnification of these pre-existing differences. Facebook’s algorithms tap into these discrepancies, then use user behaviors to fuel the very machinery that drives us farther apart. And the microtargeting made possible by Facebook ads opens this up to a whole other level of exploitation. (See Exhibits B–Z: Russia.)

As I see it, there are two paths that the American public might take in the context of this political information environment.

Path No. 1: We stay in our silos, passively allowing media moguls and tech platforms to drag us deeper into our corners based our political, psychological, racial, and cultural distinctions. We let the algorithms and micro-targeting mechanisms deliver us belief-confirming disinformation and culturally-divisive tropes, all delivered in the kind of language and packaging that we like best. Then, as our political party preferences increasingly overlap with other less “political” dimensions of our identities, we find ourselves rage-fueled, our fate firmly tied to a war between a socially constructed us that hates the also-socially constructed them. And at that point, we will be…ungovernable.

Or perhaps we choose Path No. 2: We actively work to disrupt the infrastructure, logic, and economic model that are driving the American public apart. Because although many of us (early 2000s “us”) had imagined that digital technologies would empower citizens by facilitating collective action and eroding the control of elite gatekeepers, many of us have had to accept that, without those gatekeepers and with horizontal networks, users become readily exploitable by algorithms and bad actors. The tech platforms once expected to empower and fuel healthy forms of activism, have instead fueled disinformation, taken advantage of susceptible populations, and rewarded hate groups.

Fortunately, human beings have always resisted dominant narratives constructed by the powerful. Even in the most oppressive contexts, with the most centrally controlled media industries, individuals have always found ways to undermine the machinery that constrains them — economically, culturally, politically, socially. And we have this same opportunity today: to deliberately confuse the algorithms and complicate the predictability of our appetites for certain media genres or journalistic story types. We can use the affordances of social media to block certain features, limit aspects of data collection and personalization, and report exploitative and fraudulent content.

And finally, we can recognize that these platforms rely on our quick, emotional, heuristic responses. And so, to mitigate their influence, in the words of Vin Arceneaux and Ryan Vander Wielen, we can “tame our intuition,” perhaps by asking ourselves challenging questions as we engage with content and programming. Questions designed to reduce the role that such curated content is intended to play in our minds and our lives. Questions like:

  • Who created this?
  • How do they want me to react? Why?
  • What do they want me to do? Like, share, react? Why?
  • How are they benefiting from my emotional response?
  • Am I willing to let myself be used by this entity in this way?

Muddying the ever-widening cultural and political chasm is possible, even within the existing logic of our media infrastructure. But will people be adequately motivated to disrupt these categories? Or to exercise restraint in their engagement with political media? Or to challenge their own reflexive emotional responses?

I say yes. Because although people today hate “the other side,” I remain convinced that once they catch on to the game, they’ll hate being pawns even more. I sure hope we choose Path No. 2.

Danna Young is associate professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware.

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