The road to hell is paved with good status updates.
In a year fraught with high-profile news of the grimmest sort (police killing unarmed black men, rapists set free, the spread of ISIS, Donald Trump), it’s tempting to open a rational dialogue about how bonkers this stuff is and what we can do to stop it. The trouble with rational dialogues? They often decompose under the weight of polar ideologies and end up with both sides hurling ad hominem barbs.
Showing someone evidence they’re wrong is more likely to make them sure they’re right.
The challenge of maintaining rationality while talking about these topics?—?politics, feminism, race, etc.?—?is amplified by the anonymity (or at least immunity) provided by the internet. Even on forums where users’ identities are visible, like Facebook or Twitter, people rarely incur real-world consequences for their online behavior. Which means that the purest of intentions are often met with childish vitriol?—?and that vitriol, in turn, reinforces the false dichotomy of us vs. them.
The truth is that it’s almost (if not outright) impossible to change an ideological opponent’s mind. A Dartmouth study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2006 introduced “the backfire effect,” which holds that people with the strongest ideological beliefs paradoxically intensify those beliefs when shown evidence that disproves them. Meaning, in other words, showing someone evidence they’re wrong is more likely to make them sure they’re right.
The experiments conducted in Nyhan and Reifler’s study found that self-described “conservative” (or “very conservative”) participants were much more susceptible to the backfire effect than their liberal counterparts. Whereas some liberals did see conflicting facts and simply maintain their inaccurate beliefs, the “very conservatives” often saw corrective information and doubled down on their false narratives.
Which is, if you think about it, pretty frightening. When the stakes are high, it’s important that everybody gets a seat at the table: left, right or middle. But if two of those three seats is cased in logic-proof ideology, what hope do we ever have of getting down to the bottom of it and fixing what is clearly a broken (or at least badly wounded) culture right now?
Nyhan and Reifler write:
Kuklinski et al. (2000) conducted two experiments attempting to counter misperceptions about federal welfare programs. In the first, which was part of a telephone survey of Illinois residents, randomly selected treatment groups were given either a set of relevant facts about welfare or a multiple-choice quiz about the same set of facts. These groups and a control group were then asked for their opinions about two welfare policy issues. Kuklinski and his colleagues found that respondents had highly inaccurate beliefs about welfare generally; that the least informed people expressed the highest confidence in their answers; and that providing the relevant facts to respondents had no effect on their issue opinions (nor did it in an unreported experiment about health care).
Think about that for a minute. “The least informed people expressed the highest confidence in their answers.” That’s dangerous enough by itself. But add to that humanity’s enthusiasm for believing lies just because they’re on the internet, and things go from dangerous to nearly cataclysmic.
After all, there are tons of Facebook warriors out there trying to do good. They’re posting thoughtful discourses on feminism. They’re sharing articles about reprehensible police behavior. They’re debunking Trump’s xenophobic gibberish. But those articles have two potential audiences: the choir being preached to, or the screeching masses on the other side of the battlefield. The choir doesn’t need the sermon, and the masses are, according to that Dartmouth study, incapable of hearing it with an open mind.
So what good does it do to take to the cyber-soapbox? Perhaps none. It might be that the right is the right and the left is the left and never the twain shall meet. Or, it might be a waiting game?—?if you want to use Trump’s bigotry as a metric, we need only take a look at a McClatchy-Marist poll that has him taking just 9% of voters under 30 years of age to see that youth is less vulnerable to certain flavors of oppression. Perhaps we simply have to wait for bigotry to go the way of the fax machine.
But until then, there’s always the hope that somebody in the middle might be able to study the facts with an unprejudiced eye. The question you have to ask yourself before posting your outrage for the world to see: Is the chance of swaying a moderate mind worth the certainty of girding an ignorant one? Or is it better to keep the political jabberjawing offline, among allies, where the exchange of ideas is something more than a verbal snowball fight?