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Birds of a feather

By David Wilson

Earlier this autumn, one of my Facebook friends posted a 17-minute-long clip of commentator Keith Olbermann reciting “176 reasons Donald Trump shouldn’t be president.” I watched it as I prepared dinner one evening.

Somewhere around number 85, my wife walked into the room and paused to watch it with me. “All true,” she sniffed, “and it won’t make a bit of difference. Olbermann’s preaching to the choir.”

She had a point. Olbermann’s audience had largely self-selected before he had uttered a single word. That’s the way the Internet works: it encourages like-minded people to cluster together around content that reflects shared tastes and values at the expense of genuine give and take. Olbermann and his producers know this. They’re unlikely to have imagined the monologue being seen in Trump Nation and perhaps changing some minds. Rather, it was designed to fan out across networks of people who loathe the Republican presidential nominee to begin with — people like me, and the Facebook friend who posted the clip, and presumably the friend who posted it to him, and so on. As damning as it may have been, Olbermann’s monologue wouldn’t change anything; it would only solidify views that had formed long ago.

We live in a digital paradox. Never before has it been so easy to reach out and connect with others, and never before has it been so easy to organize ourselves into tribes. The more we engage with social media networks, the more we begin to identify with them, and the more they shape our world view. Offline, we have to deal with all kinds of people. Online, we get to pick and choose: friend or un-friend; us or not-us. Algorithms that mine information about us and then herd us together into pre-fabricated online communities only encourage further segmentation.

Researchers have a nice name for these online clusters — “echo chambers.” The content that circulates inside them tends to reinforce ideas to which the members already subscribe. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States recently showed how the echo chamber effect spawns bizarre conspiracy theories and perpetuates misinformation about issues like climate change. Inside the echo chamber, it doesn’t matter if what’s being said is wrong; if it sounds like your own voice, it’s as good as right.

It’s no accident that the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has often seemed more like tribal warfare than a principled struggle for hearts and minds. According to the Pew Research Center, 10 times more adult Americans — 65 percent of the entire adult population — use social media today than they did when George W. Bush was still president in 2005. Where once they might have talked politics in coffee shops or at the water cooler and risked interacting with people who hold opposing views, voters increasingly gather in the comfort of online communities whose membership dynamics limit dialogue.

Olbermann’s “176 reasons” monologue was classic online tribalism. It was overkill with a spiteful subtext: how stupid can Trump’s supporters be? But it likely didn’t matter much to Trump Nation because it was too preoccupied with haranguing its own choir on travesties like banning Muslim immigrants, building a wall along the Mexican border and scrapping ObamaCare.

This clatter comes to an end this month. One tribe will claim victory, but no one will really win. Everyone lost long ago, when people started hearing only themselves and stopped listening to each other. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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