Online Ideological Segregation and Epistemic Closure

In his column today, David Brooks analyzes a new study which looks at whether the internet is fostering more or less ideological segregation among online news consumers. Since it’s so easy to self-filter information, are we becoming increasingly isolated in our own ideological cocoons, only seeking out items that confirm our biases, and ignoring anything that challenges them? Here’s Brooks:

The methodology is complicated, but can be summarized through a geographic metaphor. Think of the Fox News site as Casper, Wyo. If you visited and shook hands with the people reading the site, you’d be very likely to be shaking hands with a conservative. The New York Times site, they suggest, is like Manhattan. If you shook hands with other readers, you’d probably be shaking hands with liberals.

The study measures the people who visit sites, not the content inside.

The study ends up finding no real segregation going on. Yes, shocker, conservatives are more likely to visit conservative sites, but a frequenter of GlennBeck.com is also more likely than the average person to visit NYTimes.com. And active liberal consumers are more likely than the average person to visit FoxNews.com.

And though the study didn’t analyze the content inside, the content inside matters! I admittedly do not visit the Fox News website very often, and if I catch part of an episode of Glenn Beck once in a while, I experience it with the same bemusement as when I watch exotic animals at the zoo. I think the content there sucks; not because I disagree with it, but because it sucks. I do have a strict filter for my consumption of conservative news and commentary. That’s why I read David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, Conor Friedersdorf, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, and libertarians like Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, Megan McArdle, and Tyler Cowen. I don’t consider avoiding Fox News and Glenn Beck to be evidence of disengagement from conservative viewpoints.

I also question whether there is really an informational equivalence between Fox News and NYTimes.com, as Brooks, and the study, seem to suggest. It’s admittedly really hard to filter out my own biases here, but c’mon, after scanning the NYT website for an hour, does a conservative really feel beseiged by liberal spin and Democrat propaganda? Right now, above the fold on the Times site I see a volcano story, a Goldman Sachs story, a story on the latest Supreme Court ruling, as well as a story on refurbished paintings at the Met, a movie review by A.O. Scott, and a profile of Demi Moore. This is liberal slant only in the conservative mad-lib sense that movies and actresses are from Hollywood and Hollywood is librul; art is urban and effete and therefore librul; the Supreme Court making decisions on stuff is activist and activist judges are librul. Maybe even volcanos (volcanos are part of the environment and all environmental stuff is librul). It’s a fun game.

The point here is that exposing oneself to different ideological viewpoints is not the same thing as thoughtfully considering those viewpoints, or allowing them to genuinely challenge one’s predisposed biases and opinions.

Julian Sanchez has been writing a lot lately about the trend in the contemporary conservative movement toward what he terms "epistemic closure": 

Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

So it’s not that conservatives aren’t running into ideas that conflict with their reality (as the study shows), but rather their epistemic closure allows them to avoid the hard work of actually reconciling and grappling with those conflicts.

In a fascinating follow-up post, Julian thinks about why this is happening. He writes about the recent story of a lesbian teen in Fulton, Mississippi who had to sue the town in order to be allowed to attend her prom with her girlfriend. The girl, Constance McMillen, won the suit, but in response, the parents of the town organized a seperate prom to which she was not invited. The "real" prom was only attended by Constance and a few of her friends. The story went national when media giant Perez Hilton denounced the town and its homophobic students on his website. Becausue of Hilton’s link, a Facebook page set up by the students to ridicule the poor girl was suddenly invaded by the digital hordes, all expressing their support for Constance and heaping scorn on her retrograde bullies and oppressors. The number of "outsider" visitors quickly dwarfed the size of the original membership. Julian writes:

Contemplate how vertigo-inducing this must be. You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural that a lesbian wouldn’t have an equal right to participate in prom—to the point where the overt hostility isn’t really directed at Constance’s sexuality so much as her bewildering insistence on messing with the way everyone knows things are supposed to be. They’re not attuned to the injustice because it seems like almost a fact of nature. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way.

So Julian sees this ideological closure in part as "an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure"—like that experienced by the poor fools of Fulton, Mississippi when their town was digitally invaded by Perez Hilton’s worldwide readership.

Former Reagan advisor and George H.W Bush official Bruce Bartlett has also weighed in on the conservative "epistemic closure" debate. He recounts a story from 2004 in which a piece ran in the New York Times Magazine quoting Bartlett as being highly critical of the current Bush White House:

A few days after the article appeared I was at some big conservative event in Washington. I assumed that my conservative friends would give me a lot of crap for what I said. But in fact no one said anything to me–and not in that embarrassed/averting-one’s-eyes sort of way. They appeared to know nothing about it.

After about half an hour I decided to start asking people what they thought of the article. Every single one gave me the same identical answer: I don’t read the New York Times. Moreover, the answers were all delivered in a tone that suggested I was either stupid for asking or that I thought they were stupid for thinking they read the Times. […]

This was the first time I really understood what is now being called epistemic closure. In the years since, it appears to have gotten much worse.

I tend to agree.

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