Bursting people’s political bubbles could make them even more partisan

(iStock/The Washington Post) (JJ Alcantara)

Politics is polarizing enough, especially when it’s easier than ever to find a group of like-minded friends online. The antidote, then, seems obvious: pop the bubble. Step outside the echo chamber. Reach out for other points of view.

For example, to combat the rampant spread of hate speech, harassment and conspiracy theories, Twitter started “experimenting with features that would promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce ‘echo chambers,’ ” The Post recently reported.

But breaking the bubble, it turns out, might not work. It might even backfire. Despite decades of psychology research that shows fostering contact between “us” and “them” is a powerful way to reduce prejudice, scientists are starting to find that you can’t just shove people together — online or in person — and expect the interaction to have miraculous effects.

Far from bridging the gap, the wrong kind of contact might even entrench people deeper in their partisan views.

That became crystal clear to Christopher Bail, a sociologist who heads the Duke University Polarization Lab, after he designed an experiment to disrupt people’s echo chambers on Twitter. Bail assigned Republicans and Democrats to follow automated accounts that retweeted messages from the elected officials, thought leaders and think tanks from the other side.

Far from finding a digital utopia forged from mutual understanding, the two sides drifted apart, Bail and his colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After a month, Republicans exposed to the Democratic account became much more conservative, while Democrats exposed to Republican tweets reported slightly more liberal views.

Bail noted that the small difference in Democrats’ views could have been caused by chance, but even so, despite having a more diverse news feed, neither Republicans nor Democrats became more sympathetic to the other side.

Bail took a dose of his own medicine and followed both accounts — which retweeted people such as @LouDobbs and @EricTrump to Democrats or @SenKamalaHarris and @ariannahuff to Republicans. Bail said he was surprised to see how frequently the accounts weren’t in conflict but were simply tweeting about entirely different issues. He said can’t be sure how the tweets had their effect in his study, but he pointed to a recent, counterintuitive body of research chronicling backfire effects.

“If you expose someone to an opposing view, their first instinct is to counter-argue it, and by virtue of counter-arguing and coming up with lots of reasons they might disagree with it, they’re left with more reasons to disagree than they had to begin with,” Bail said.

Those results resonate with Donghee Jo, an economist at Northeastern University, who has been studying a related question in South Korea and also found, to his surprise, that people who stay in their bubbles moderate their extreme views more than those exposed to diverse news sources.

“The next question is: What are the exact conditions it goes in the opposite direction?” Jo said.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helps answer…

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