“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They are the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
Millions of people read this quote on their Facebook news feed, attributed to Donald Trump in a 1998 interview in People magazine. It was, no doubt, received with either glee or contempt.
There is only one problem: He never said it.
This typifies the types of online posts that help explain why Americans’ values and basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the last 25 years.
Do we believe only what we want to believe and selectively filter out information contradicting our preferences? Do many of us congregate on social media in an environment fortified by opinions, thoughts and declarations that push us further into our positions? Do our opinions become more extreme, the more we state them?
It seems perfectly logical that if you repeatedly express an opinion, your attitude will become more extreme in favor of that position. It would then follow that people might avoid the mental stress of confronting information that differs from their own belief.
Anyone who has ever engaged in a spirited debate knows that a mind can’t be changed from without; it must be changed from within. Still, appealing to sentiment is much more effective today than appealing to rationality.
Beliefs can be invincible because the more they are repeated, the more they are believed; and the more they are challenged, the more they are believed. Possibly, the only way to weaken a belief is to let it be, or leave it alone. Any attention, positive or negative, is fuel for the fire.
Is this is why social media is so powerful?
Its very nature entices us to make immediate, emotional responses on steroids. If we agree with a posted video, article or statement, we don’t just “like” it but we like the poster as well. If we thoroughly disagree with a post, and decide to “set the poster straight,” we only re-affirm our own belief and prompt the poster to re-affirm his.
It now becomes a race to the bottom where both sides get stronger, and which makes mutually assured destruction the only available outcome.
In the olden days, when news came to us endorsed by only the journalist and editor, we couldn’t be certain that our friends would agree with it. We were forced to question ourselves before plunging into society with that opinion held strong in front of us. We may even have feared looking silly, and were to some degree cautious and questioning.
Fast-forward to today with the news ready-packaged with likes and comments.
We hardly even stop to question it. We are shown things that an algorithm determines we’ll read, like and share again. It is already pre-endorsed by friends who we respect. What could be more believable?
This medium is also universally adaptable to any specific area or group, including your local community. Without monetary investment or oversight, a modern internet troll can post the truth, lies, or anything in between with no filter or fear of retribution from the person(s) he seeks to malign. You will not see contradicting or correcting comments since the troll can block or prevent feedback from anyone he chooses.
He simply posts and waits for responses. The likes and comments tell him what resonates, and he can further refine or add to the rant. If most of his allegations are not founded in truth, not to worry, because he will still attract those who want to believe the worst.
Excuse me. I should have said those who have their own ideas of the truth.
This brings me to my final point.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that today a lot of people don’t really want the truth. They simply want re-assurance that what they believe is the truth.
This is why social media, as it exists today, can be a dangerously divisive force among us at all levels. It is a medium that soothes us with what we want to hear, and inflames us with what we don’t. It provides positive reinforcement for what we believe is true, and positive reinforcement for what we believe is false.
The most ironic aspect is that this was created to be an ultra-efficient form of commercial advertising and marketing.
Perhaps people haven’t changed. Confirmation bias, selection bias and all other evolutionary shortcuts were never meant to deal with this new media. Our society has never before questioned those who would manipulate others’ minds for profit. We cannot spare the fraud and spoil the riled. I increasingly find myself appreciating posted pictures of a cat or the latest dinner entrée.
Whether you want to be challenged, or want those you disagree with to be challenged, either is proving to be increasingly challenging.
It is unlikely that this will turn out to be a good thing.
Jim Surber is the Darke County engineer. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University and a columnist for The Highland County Press.