The role of media and algorithms in a discussion of how the design of the internet polarizes us.
It’s extremely rare to find a well-informed political science editorial spotlighting the causes/motivations of media bias. So I am proud to present the following article, submitted by Dante Emerson, describing how the political landscape is shaped by the internet, which is guided by media algorithms.
In the age of the internet, information is available at the click of a button, but this is not always a good thing. Social media and search platforms such as Facebook and Google are designed to show you what they think you want to see based on your search and viewer history. This causes people to become insulated within “echo chambers”, environments where only opinions that agree with yours are heard. What is worse, the media capitalizes on this phenomenon and exacerbates it.
In The Law of Group Polarization , Cass R. Sunstein argues that groups of likeminded people in deliberative environments tend become more radical in their ideas. For instance, a group of professors in favor of affirmative action coming together to discuss how to defend affirmative action will likely become more radically in favor of affirmative action as a result of the interaction.
Bernard Manin  warned of the dangers of democratic, deliberative forums, in that supporting arguments are presented, while sensitive information is suppressed. He expressed the importance of public debate to clearly identify the issues at stake.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are where people come together to discuss ideas and current events in real time. These two platforms specifically use “relevancy algorithms”  to deliver content to users. Not only do these algorithms attempt to match your search string with suitably matching results, but they also have intelligent computer programs sifting through hundreds of things that you have looked at before, and selects similar things to show in your search results. This means that people who often follow Left* leaning social causes will be shown more content from Left leaning sources, allowing them to congregate with like-minded people. The same is true of conservatives.
This leads to people on all sides to form echo chambers where their ideas are bounced around, developed, and yet go unchallenged. As the two sides have become more and more polarized, they become more and more hostile to one another, and interactions between the two are reduced to attacks. Examples of this include calls from the Left for hate speech policies to be applied to basic conservative talking points, and people on the Right digging up controversial things from prominent Leftist figures’ pasts to get them fired.
Media agendas also play a large role in this problem. According to Political Agenda Setting and Mass Media , there are three methods media organizations seek to influence society:
- Determining what subjects will be talked about.
- Determining what subjects will not be talked about.
- Defining things or framing reality in a certain way.
Relevancy algorithms make it easier than ever before for media outlets to use the above tactics.
Authors of articles likely to be shared in Left or Right echo chambers will use click bait article titles – titles that are strategically worded to make the article seem more interesting or urgent to get more people to view them. They will also inject a higher volume of opinions in these articles, in order to accommodate their audiences who are moving further and further to the Left or Right.
The effects of this phenomenon are wide spread, and include the influencing of elections and government policy in possibly negative ways, as well as the creation and proliferation of extremist groups such as the Alt Right**, a very small but tech savvy group of white nationalists that often dig up and publish private information of their critics leaving them open to harassment and violence, and AntiFa, a group of communist revolutionaries that show up at events they disagree with and engage in violence against organizers and participants.
Any mainstream coverage of the Alt-Right is almost guaranteed to contain misinformation, because most of the news correspondents deliver talking points that show they have no idea what they are talking about, and that holds true for all the outlets. So no one media source is totally unbiased concerning their coverage of any internet culture in question. Even more reputable conservative news agencies like Fox have the same problem.
This blind spot within the media arises from several factors. One is because the media has a fundamental bias to the Left. But the overriding reason is that the media agencies seem “not to understand” the echo chamber dynamic of internet cultures.
In this video, Tim Pool talks about how Facebook’s algorithm is creating a political echo chamber that is driving people into extreme opinions.
Tim Pool is one of the founders of the popular news company Vice. He resigned from Vice because he found that media companies are incapable of adapting to the internet age.
Some may find it more than a coincidence that certain noteworthy names, such as Rupert Murdoch, the Walt Disney Company, and the Hearst Corp., have since invested heavily in Vice media.
Given that endorsement, you might believe that the reason why no one media source is totally unbiased concerning their coverage of any internet culture in question could be because the media does understand the dynamics of internet cultures, and they are using The Law of Group Polarization to divide society into two (or more) groups.
So perhaps it is not that media companies are incapable of adapting to the internet age, but rather, they are unwilling to take responsibility for correcting the asymptotic diversions created by relevancy algorithms, as it may serve their better interests.
Right now, the results of this natural progression are imminent. Society is starkly divided into two warring factions – one subscribing faithfully to the main stream media propaganda (the Left), and the other (the Right) is being earmarked as a scapegoat, as it’s fringe elements are being labeled, one by one, as dangerously dissident, and will eventually be assassinated by some form of sanction or censorship, and possibly even state enforced.
In conclusion, we must be more aware of the biases of the sources we find on social media. We must learn to see the difference between fact and opinion, and diversify the sources of our information. The practice of having public debates should be revisited and strongly preferred over the discourse of talk cells and think tanks.
* It is prudent to stop referring to the Left as “liberals”. It’s a fundamental misuse of the word.
** The Alt-Right is an offshoot of several different white nationalist movements. The actual Alt-Right is too small to for their activities to be picked up by mainstream media. They are usually only talked about by small independent journalists and commentators who do so at their own risk. The term Alt-Right is widely misused in the media to refer to detractors of Leftist ideas. For instance, Ben Shapiro is often referred to as Alt-Right despite him being Jewish, and the actual Alt-Right being fundamentally opposed to his existence.
- Cass R. Sunstein, “The Law of Group Polarization”, Journal of Political Philosophy 10:2 (2002) 175-195.
- Bernard Manin, Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion (October 13, 2005).
- Christine Warner, This Is Exactly How Social Media Algorithms Work Today. (May 3, 2018)
- Stefaan Walgrave and Peter Van Aelst, Political Agenda Setting and Mass Media. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (August, 2016)
Tim Pool talks further about character assassinations, alternative media, and far Left activism.