The role of narratives and social media in the polarization of beliefs and attitudes
Da der Autor aus Südafrika stammt und die Betreuung nur auf Englisch durchführen kann, ist keine deutschsprachige Variante dieses Themas verfügbar.
Recently, there has been the perception that beliefs and attitudes in society are have been becoming increasingly polarised. One potential explanation that has been put forward to explain this is the increased usage of social media, and the hypothesis that we are increasingly only exposed to ideas and views that support our own. More specifically, many authors (see, e.g., Enke (2018)) argue that we increasingly live in “echo chambers”, and therefore different parts of society end up with completely different belief systems.
Another interesting perspective that has recently risen to prominence within economics is the notion of narratives (see, e.g., Benabou, Falk, Tirole (2018)). One way to think about a narrative is the following. Think about a collection of pieces of information or a collection of facts. (for example, if it is helpful to think of a specific example, you can picture a detective or a lawyer who is collecting evidence about a particular case). There are often many different ways to organise these pieces of information into a coherent story. One can choose which pieces of information to focus on; one can leave out some of the information, and one can think of different possible causal stories linking the information together. In a court case, it is often the case that the two sides develop different narratives around the same evidence.
Similarly, in politics, different political parties often organise the same body of evidence on a given issue in very different ways. For example, there are groups of people who either believe that climate change is or is not caused by human activity, yet both have access to the same information.1 One way to think about the concept of a narrative is that it is referring to these different stories that organise a set of facts. Narratives are particularly relevant when the environment is complex, and it is hard to know what is the best way to organise the evidence available.
Motivated reasoning – selecting narratives. One issue here is when people are developing these stories (or theories) that link together the facts, they often have a personal interest in the issue. This implies that they may not be completely objective in the way they construct a story that they believe best organises the facts. For example, wealthy people may be more inclined to believe that skill and hard work are very important for building a successful career, while poor people may be more inclined to believe that luck is very important building a successful career.2
Spreading narratives. With the rise of social media and communication technology more generally, it has become far easier to spread both information, but also views or narratives. Often these narratives are expressed in short, catchy sound bites (short clips) or tweets, that are repeated and shared, but then shape how a large group of people think about a particular issue. They may or may not be related to facts at all, but are often non-trivial to falsify. For example, “immigrants will take our jobs” as a justification for anti-immigrant policies; or “I can’t give to everyone” or “they will just use it to buy alcohol” as a justification for not giving money to a beggar in places where there are many poor people.3
Some interesting questions:
The text above has simple provided a general description of a fairly broad topic. For a good research project, one would need to choose a narrow and precise question within this broad area. Some possible ideas for the type of research question one might ask include the following:4
- Can we show that when people are given a set of facts, and presented with different possible narratives/stories organising the facts, they are more inclined to accept/believe the narrative that fits their own private agenda?
- Does social media contribute to the spread of narratives? Are simple, easily summarised narratives given an advantage in the age of social media with Twitter’s 140 (280) character limit, and short attention spans?
- How can we encourage people to be more open-minded, to engage in conversation outside their “echo chamber”, and to accept the narrative that is most likely to be true, rather than the one that best suits their personal interests?
Some possible sources of inspiration:
- Two books by Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind” and “The Coddling of the American Mind” (with Greg Lukianoff)
- Various clips on YouTube by comedians such as Trevor Noah, Seth Myers and John Oliver provide examples of how politicians change the narrative they espouse to suit their purposes. I am sure there are German equivalents.
- Various academic texts, with the following being a very narrow selection.
1 It is often interesting to see how politicians will take one perspective on an issue at one time when it suits their purposes, but then later when they have the reverse incentives, they are extremely happy to switch around and take the complete opposite position. With respect to politics in the USA, comedians often exploit this to show how extremely hypocritical politicians are.
2 I would speculate that we all engage in this type of motivated reasoning in our everyday lives. We justify our actions to ourselves by creating an ex post narrative which puts a positive spin on our actions, and we try to portray this narrative to others.
3 Similarly, in the USA, when asked if gun laws should be re-examined after a recent shooting Donald Trump stated “this has little to do with it. If they had protection inside, maybe it could have been a different situation.” Implicit in this is firstly that changing current USA gun laws would not reduce gun related deaths, and secondly that the best way to reduce gun related deaths is by acquiring guns as protection.
4 Even these questions are far too broad, and should be narrowed down for a good research project.