Newsletter 143 - Tuesday August 1, 2023
by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
Our Communication Problems
On July 11, with Newsletter 133, we ended a four-part series on things that everyone ought to know about escalation and de-escalation. We continue here with the start of a similar series focused on what everyone ought to know about communication problems—both interpersonal and societal (meaning through the media) — that do so much to drive the cycles of escalation and polarization, and hence hatred, distrust, and fear.. More importantly, we look at what can be done to remedy these problems.
As we pointed out in Newsletter 117, our first post on escalation, as conflicts become more polarized and escalated, we tend to stop making any effort to understand the views of the other side. This lack of communication creates an environment in which our misunderstandings of the other fester unopposed. This then reinforces our negative views about them, which then leads to more polarization and escalation. So it's a vicious circle, or as system theorists would say, a positive (reinforcing) feedback loop.
The Perception Gap
Even on the most controversial issues in our national debates, Americans are less divided than most of us think. This is good news for those worried about the character of this country. The majority of Americans hold views that may not be so different from your own. So who has the largest Perception Gap? What factors might explain why one person has more distorted perceptions than another? … [According to our survey,] the most partisan, politically active Americans — a group we call the “Wings” — have deeply distorted perceptions of the other side. The two groups with the widest Perception Gaps are the Progressive Activists and the Devoted Conservatives — the most ideological and committed groups of Democrats and Republicans. And which is the most accurate segment? Surprisingly, it’s the Politically Disengaged. They are fully three times more accurate in their estimates of political opponents than members of either of these Wing groups.
More in Common goes on to explain that people who read or watch the news a lot have highly distorted views of the other side. People who don't pay attention to the news are much closer to right. While this might seem odd, it isn't, if one recognizes that the news, very often, is not reporting "the truth," but rather a skewed image of that truth — one that matches their audience's preferred narrative, be it left or right.
The Power of The Media
Almost all of our information about the large and complex societies in which we live comes from the media, not through direct experience. We simply do not have the time or the brainpower to find out everything we need to know about our communities or the world by ourselves. As such, the dynamics that determine how the media reports the news do much to determine, what we believe and how we act. And most media organizations — both traditional news outlets and the newer social media platforms — operate in a highly competitive environment in which financial viability depends upon the ability to sustain large and loyal audiences. Unfortunately, because of a variety of cognitive biases, this is most effectively done by focusing on the bad, even the outrageous, in order to get people angry and to keep them coming back for more.
The truth, as Guy often observes, is that the fear part of the brain is wired ahead of the hope part of the brain — a fact that has long evolutionary roots in our struggle to survive in a dangerous world. Compounding the problem is the fact that the detailed audience tracking that Internet-based information systems provide enables publishers to figure out exactly what kinds of content their audience finds most difficult to ignore. Sophisticated algorithms are then used, especially on social media, to flood our news feeds with stories that promote self-righteous indignation, while discrediting or avoiding competing arguments. Publishers that provide this kind of content flourish, while those that are less willing to do so (and are more civically responsible) tend to reach only limited audiences.
This whole process works best when audiences have reasonably homogeneous political views, as well as preferences regarding presentation and format (e.g., TV, tabloids, talk radio, social media feeds, or "sophisticated" editorials). This is why we've seen a proliferation of information sources each aimed at specific audience demographics. This process, which replaced the old era of "broadcasting" with a new era of "narrowcasting," has now been taken a step further in the era of social media with "target casting." With target casting, complex algorithms combined with the extensive profiling information that tech companies now have available on virtually everyone, enable companies to craft newsfeeds that target individual preferences and prejudices with extreme precision.
The result is that the modern media has become an even more powerful driver of the escalation spiral, and a main reason why the people that More in Common call the "wings" are increasingly angry and fearful. (This also explains More in Common's counterintuitive observation that those who don't follow the news so closely have more accurate images.)
News and social media outlets around the world are afflicted by this cluster of problems, which is a big part of the reason why so many democracies are now in serious trouble. The danger is compounded by the ability of the authoritarian regimes and aspiring tyrants to weaponize these dynamics and technologies as part of a very effective "divide and conquer" political strategy.
Why Should We Care?
Long ago, Guy talked about the "recreational complaint effect." It's fun to sit around and complain about the other side, all the while patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves on how much smarter or better we are. We all do it, and it feels good. It reinforces our self esteem and puts us in good graces with our friends and colleagues. Openly questioning such behavior makes our friends and colleagues suspicious of us, and risks us being chastised or even thrown out of the group.
But this game comes at a very high cost: that, quite possibly, is the demise of democracy and social stability. If we keep driving the escalation and polarization spirals, we will get (as Newsletter 117 explained) to dysfunctional chaos, violence and, quite possibly, an authoritarian outcome. Plus, our polarization is making it impossible for us to successfully address any of our real problems: climate, inequality, immigration, education, health care etc. So, what can we do about this?
One thing we can do it to diversify our news sources. Most people get their news — hence what they generally believe as "fact," — from one or just a few similarly-oriented sources. People on the left tend to go to the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and MSNBC while people on the right tend to go to Fox News, Breitbart, and Newsmax. Although most of our progressive friends think that Fox News is biased and the Times, Post, and MSNBC are balanced, that really isn't true. Both sides cover some stories relatively accurately, but all these news sources spin other stories to correspond to the narratives that they think their audience wants to hear.
Allsides.com, for example, ran a story on January 8, 2021 that illustrated how differently the Right and the Left described what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Left described the scene as a violet mob engaged in "terrorism," while the Right saw it as a justified "protest action." Those divergent views still hold. In a June, 2023 article in the New York Times, Robert Draper reports that "More than half, or 58 percent, of self-described conservatives say that Jan. 6 was an act of “legitimate political discourse” rather than a “violent insurrection.” Another divergent spin: according to a June 3, 2022 Reuters story, "half of U.S. Republicans believed that the left led the January 6 violence, not the right. Where did they get that idea? Obviously, biased media focused on telling their audiences what they want to hear.
The result, not surprisingly, is that Americans hold extremely divergent views of what is true. According to NBC News, in February, 2021, almost two-thirds of Republicans believed that President Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, while almost all Democrats believed that his win was legitimate. This belief also has held for two years: in May, 2023, the Washington Post reports that "Six in 10 Republicans still think 2020 was illegitimate." A Forbes article published about the same time is even more surprising. It's headline reads "Republicans Increasingly Realize There’s No Evidence Of Election Fraud—But Most Still Think 2020 Election Was Stolen Anyway, Poll Finds." They write:
The share of Republicans who believe President Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election and there’s “solid evidence” to prove it has plunged over the past two years, a new CNN/SSRS poll finds, suggesting Republicans are increasingly realizing there’s no solid proof of the election fraud claims pushed by the far right—but still aren’t changing their minds about the election being “stolen.” (Emphasis ours)
Even more astonishing, 23% — almost a quarter of Republicans — told pollsters that they agreed in May, 2021 with the QAnon charge that "the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation." Needless to say, few, if any, Democrats believed that. (When Republicans were in power, of course, Democrats believed a lot of inflammatory and often untrue things as well. For example, Noam Chomsky, a well known progressive Democrat said in an interview that the Republicans were a "group of radical sadists.") While these quotes are two years old, (and we weren't able to find newer data), it seems pretty clear that nothing has changed for the better.
One result of such reporting is that neither side trusts the news put forth by the other side, claiming it is "fake." As we will talk about in a future newsletter, Bad-Faith Actors do much to drive this distrust, both by putting out what the RAND Corporation termed "a firehose of falsehoods," and by asserting that legitimate journalism and journalists (who publish stories they don't like) are disseminating "fake news" or are "enemies of the state" or "enemies of the people." This drives polarization and escalation even more. Even if people's preferred sources are good, this over-reliance on one, or just a few sources of information, usually results in, at best, a partial understanding of any complex situation.
Further, a surprising number of people don't get their information from traditional news outlets at all, but rather get their news from their trusted friends and organizations on social media.. Social media has an entirely different approach to vetting stories. With only a few exceptions, they do almost nothing to prevent the spreading of inaccurate news, but rather feed readers more and more of it, reinforcing whatever they have read or watched before, in an effort to keep them coming back, and staying once they are there. This kind of journalism deepens misunderstandings, and creates and reinforces enemy images, until everyone hates and fears everyone else. This has gotten so bad that that, in the U.S., both sides think that an electoral victory of the other side is an existential threat. According to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll taken in early 2022, a full one third of Americans think that violence against the government might be justified.
There is yet another approach to fact-finding that is increasingly popular these days: that's the notion that nothing at all is valid unless it is seen or done or experienced personally. This is the view of what is called "standpoint epistemology" which suggests, for instance, that men cannot possibly understand how women experience the world because they aren't women; whites cannot possibly understand how Blacks experience the world, because they are white, etc. But, if the only "truth" is that which we have experienced personally, nothing that we learn through the media can be trusted, ever. The only thing we can believe is that which we see with our own eyes. That makes notions of "truth" and "fact" almost infinitesimally small, as very few of us have been able to experience more than a tiny sliver of what's going on in the world. So it atomizes "fact" and "truth" to such small increments, that there is pretty much no way we can, as a society, agree on any "fact" or "truth." This is a direct assault on whole notion of scientific and scholarly knowledge upon which modern society is based. You cannot deal with any problem if you are not willing to go beyond your own personal experience and build on the insights and experiences of others. Our life and our world is simply too complicated for that to work.
Rather than diminishing polarization, these self-centered views tend to increase it, pulling us farther and father apart. If we want to reverse that trend, rather than atomizing knowledge, we need to improve interpersonal and intergroup communication and understanding. We need to develop collective images of objective facts and observable truths.
What Can We Do About This?
First, we all need to read, listen, and watch, more broadly. While you may not want to go all the way over to extremes of "the other side" on a routine basis, checking out stories you read on your chosen news source with similar stories on some other sources that are more widely viewed as "unbiased" or at least less biased, can help sort out the "fake news" from "real news." This is particularly important if you are reading a story that paints the other side as particularly "evil" or "stupid" or otherwise bad. By reading related stories written by neutral or even opposite points of view, you may find out that the other side has legitimate reasons to make the arguments they do. You may also realize that there are things you or your side is doing to make the other side respond in the way it is. (See our newsletter on "contribution.")
In addition, we find it useful to stay away from sources that seem to focus on finding evermore clever ways of insulting political opponents and dismissing their arguments as totally unworthy of consideration. Instead, focus on sources that seriously grapple with the issues, offer carefully considered arguments for what they believe, and provide links to comparably serious sources of supporting information. Obviously, this also entails the willingness to grapple with criticism and uncomfortable ideas — something that both sides are increasingly unwilling to do.
Finding "Impartial" News
How do you find "impartial" news sources? It's not terribly hard. Ad Fontes Media maintains a detailed and quite sophisticated "Media Bias Chart". It ranks many media sources as to the degree to which they lean Left or Right, and also the value and reliability of their news. Relying on sources that are far off center and/or lower down on their "News Value and Reliability" scale is likely to yield distorted information. Even if one is relying on a source or a few sources (shown on the top, center of that chart), it is very useful to read, listen to, or watch stories about your issues of concern from several different sources—and be intentionally open to being surprised. We also need to be aware of what is being said on the popular, but less reliable, and more extreme, sources. This content does much to explain why the "other side" thinks as they do and what makes our conflicts so difficult and dangerous.
Another chart is produced by allsides.com, which asserts that "unbiased news does not exist." They claim that they provide "balanced news and civil discourse," and assert that "comparing headlines from across the spectrum can help you to sort through bias and find truth." We would argue that you need to do more than look at the headlines. Often headlines are more provocative than the article content, trying to draw readers in with attention-catching statements that might even be contradicted in the body of the story. So we say read across the spectrum, but go deeper than the headlines. Allsides can help you do that, as can another website called The Flipside which looks at one issue a day and presents representative views on that issue coming from both the Left and the Right.
This kind of balanced and multi-perspective way of looking at the news is, unfortunately, time consuming and often expensive (many of the best sources are behind paywalls). Many of people simply don't have time to do this. There is a continuing need for cheaper and more convenient ways of getting more balanced information to mass audiences. We will discuss this more in an upcoming newsletter that focuses on media reforms.
Communicate Directly (and Effectively) With People Who Think Differently from Us
The other thing we all can do is to make an effort to talk (and more importantly) listen to people who think differently than we do. Rather than rejecting them or avoiding them, seek them out and really try to learn from them—what do they believe? (As we pointed out at the beginning, they may believe quite different things than we expect.) Why do they believe what they believe? Why do they say what they say and do what they do? We may think we know—but most likely we don't. This is a topic that we will explore further in a future newsletter focused on "escalation-limiting communication".
- Mass Media - Everything we know about world events is filtered through the media. When those filters are inaccurate, so too is our knowledge.
"The Outcry Over ‘Both Sides’ Journalism" Roger Cohen. The New York Times. June 121, 2020.
Constructive Institute - Helping journalists to apply constructive reporting through a best-practices portal, a fellowship program, training, and academic research.
Solutions Journalism Network - For a world in which the media seems to talk about nothing but problems, hopelessness, and the evil "other," journalists focusing on finding real solutions.
The Russian "Firehose of Falsehood" Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews. RAND Corporation
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