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The Information Cocoon

By J. Gram Slattery

A few weeks ago, I signed up for Twitter. I didn’t really know how it worked, or why anyone would enjoy having one, but all the writers I admire use it, and it’s said to be a useful tool of self-promotion. So with the careful selection of a selfie, an artsy background picture, and a somewhat self-indulgent description of myself (“Writer, contrarian, humanist.”), I was in business.

I quickly signed up to follow the magazines that align with my politics: the New Republic, the American Prospect, Slate, etc. I also added a few highbrow publications that I don’t read, but that abetted my intellectual, leftist online persona. (Think the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.)

Soon enough, I was fielding a torrent of tweets from the liberal punditry reaffirming my pre-existing worldview. I would then disseminate these tidbits out to a modest but growing band of equally liberal followers. “Colorado and Washington are right: It is immoral to cage humans for smoking marijuana,” read one of my re-tweets, originally from the Atlantic.

“A socialist snowplow just went past my house. Will this tyranny never end?” read another—that tweet itself re-disseminated by the left-leaning Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne ’73.

Soon, it became clear that Twitter was a convenient, addictive, and totally inadequate way to consume all my news and dish out my opinions. To avoid drinking in and spitting forth the same Kool-Aid every evening, I started following a few publications and pundits that I loathe, from National Review to Commentary. But I soon found that while I could tolerate and feed off the energy of reductionist, 140-character invectives with which I agreed, when a National Review tweeter made a partisan claim, it seemed like wrongness concentrated.

If I were to re-tweet any statements from the right, my tone would be critical, even sarcastic. For the most part, however, I just engaged with the simplified content on the left, and let the other junk slide by into cyber-oblivion. Despite the torrent of information available, I was moving further and further into a political corner.

So far I’ve discussed my own misuse of social media, but this is far from just a personal account. Rather, partisan retrenchment via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms is a general problem that afflicts Generation Y, especially those of us who are politically engaged.

Let’s briefly abandon anecdote and look at the science behind this claim. Two years ago, a team of researchers at the University of Indiana analyzed a random sample of 250,000 politically themed tweets from 45,000 users. They then created an algorithm to determine the political leanings of each relevant user and examined the partisan affiliation of the content that each user re-tweeted. The results? Ninety-three percent of the content retweeted by right-leaners was conservative in nature, and 80 percent of the content retweeted by left-leaners was liberal. Far from broadening users’ political views, social media—at least in the case of Twitter—is creating echo chambers for increasingly cloistered partisan communities.

Interestingly, in his 2006 book Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce, the famous legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein ’78 predicted this phenomenon, warning of the formation of online information “cocoons.” In the book, he referenced the work of MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, who “prophecied the emergence of ‘the Daily Me,’ an entirely personalized newspaper in which each of us could select…perspectives that we liked.”

This prophecy would, of course, materialize with the popularization of Twitter. “The central problem involves…communications universes in which we hear only what we choose and only what comforts us,” added Sunstein.

Facebook, one could argue, is increasingly used in a Twitter-esque fashion when it comes to political matters. And with publications themselves active on all social media platforms, a natural emphasis has been put on partisan provocativeness in titles, subheadings, and, of course, the tweets and Facebook posts that advertise this content. In other words, news sources themselves have become involved in the construction of these partisan, cloistered “Daily Me’s” which Sunstein warned about.

This isn’t to say that social media is about to bring down democracy. On the contrary, these new platforms allow information to saturate the public more quickly than ever before, and our knowledge of the most relevant or recent news is no longer predicated on visiting the correct website. But in an era of conspicuous partisanship, we had best be wary of taking this deluge of information, and—instead of broadening our perspective—warping it into a cocoon of ignorance.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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