What Now? A Conversation about the Media and Politics with Jerry Kane

The results of the 2016 presidential election were beyond surprising. Now that we've had some time to digest them, it's time to find answers on many levels. Perhaps it's best to begin with assessing the role of the media--both traditional and social. To this end, I recently sat down with my friend Jerry Kane, an associate professor at Boston College.

The following are excerpts of our conversation.

PS: How has social media influenced the election cycle?

JK: I do think social media is an inherent part of what have seen play out in the pre-election and post-election politics, but social media is not the whole story. We've heard a lot about "filter bubbles" and the role of fake news in the election cycle, but the real issue is much deeper. It's a vicious cycle between social media, traditional media, and natural human tendencies.

People have inherent tendencies called homophily and confirmation bias. In other words, given the virtually infinite number of choices provided by social media, people tend to seek out people who are like them and information that confirms their existing worldview. The problem is that social media platforms are intentionally designed to exploit these characteristics to increase users' time on the site. To put it simply, social media is intentionally designed to be psychologically addictive by showing people exactly what they want to see. In political discourse, research shows that it leads to polarizing and extreme positions.

Designing for these human tendencies keeps you engaged in the platform, allowing them to collect more data and show you more advertising. While these design features may be good for business, it doesn't seem to be good for democracy, which depends on exchanging ideas between people who are and think differently from one another.

PS: So, what's the role of traditional media in this process?

JK: Traditional media journalists and editors also have access to social media, and they are increasingly using it as a source for reporting. This relationship also creates a feedback loop. First, it influences the thinking of those who write and curate the news, in the same way as I described earlier. Journalists thinking is increasingly driven by what they see on social media, which has been optimized to reinforce their our worldview. Second, these publishers have access to data analytics, which allows them to assess the popularity of a given story or topic. Knowing which stories or topics are more popular, the site can offer more stories on those popular topics. Third, as the site begins to create more content on those topics, it will attract a new audience whose confirmation bias leads them to seek out that content, reinforcing the cycle. So, not only are social media sites designed to show you what you want to see, the news media is capitalizing on this feature to drive ratings and developed content that appeals to a particular group of people, which introduces bias into the process. Biased news may be a more insidious problem for democracy than fake news.

PS: What's the effect of these trends?

JK: I think we are seeing it play out in the pre- and post-election dynamics. You have two different political groups/ parties who literally have no idea what the other side is talking about or how they could vote for the other candidate. I did an experiment this election season and consumed news from all across the political spectrum. It was fairly shocking how different the perspectives were and fairly exhausting to try and process it all. It's just much easier to give into our confirmation bias. When I tried to engage in discussion with friends or family members on the "issues," discussions often broke down when our different news sources provided markedly different facts.

PS: Can anything be done to fix this cycle?

JK: That's a hard question, because these outcomes are not an error in the system, it's how each of them are intentionally designed. Certainly people can't simply turn off the tendency toward homophily or confirmation bias, it's part of our genetics. The traditional news media can't just stop being concerned about ratings, it's how they make money. Social media platforms can't just stop refining its design to appeal better serve up the information we want, it's why we keep engaging with the platform.

If you find yourself caught up in this cycle, the best short-term solution may be to break the cycle by stepping away from social media for a bit. Not only might it help bring about peace of mind, but it may also be the best way to motivate social media platforms to address this problem. Their business models are dependent on you trusting them with your time and attention.

PS: Is there anything else that can be done?

JK: I'm not a political scientist, but another option may be to change the nature of the political conversation. The state of Maine just passed "rank order voting," where candidates list their candidates in preferred order. That method of voting could allow a compromise candidate to emerge in a situation where the leading candidates are polarizing. That solution wouldn't change the cycle, just what the cycle is focused on.