Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Biden Campaign Shows How Social Media Can Reduce Polarization

A compelling report by Kevin Roose in the NY Times explains how the Biden campaign used "surprising validators" like Fox News to penetrate the filter bubbles of Trump supporters. The broader lesson is that social media algorithms can automate this strategy for each of us -- surfacing turncoat and contrarian views from sources we trust that can make us stop and think. That can disarm polarization far more effectively than the “neutral” fact-checking and warning labels that the platforms have been pressured to try.

...So the campaign pivoted…expanding Mr. Biden’s reach by working with social media influencers and “validators,” people who were trusted by the kinds of voters the campaign hoped to reach.

...Perhaps the campaign’s most unlikely validator was Fox News. Headlines from the outlet that reflected well on Mr. Biden were relatively rare, but the campaign’s tests showed that they were more persuasive to on-the-fence voters than headlines from other outlets. So when they appeared — as they did in October when Fox News covered an endorsement that Mr. Biden received from more than 120 Republican former national security and military officials — the campaign paid to promote them on Facebook and other platforms.

“The headlines from the sources that were the most surprising were the ones that had the most impact …When people saw a Fox News headline endorsing Joe Biden, it made them stop scrolling and think.”

“Stop scrolling and think?” Does that happen when a social media user sees an “independent” fact-check warning label? Or an “authoritative” article that presents a contrary view? 

Cass Sunstein introduced the term “surprising validators” in a 2012 Times op-ed, explaining how they could cut through filter-bubble echo-chambers -- while “balanced” critiques were “likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.” 

That spurred my suggestions that social media should build alerting to surprising validators directly into their algorithms, as a way to help combat growing polarization and disinformation. Unlike fact-checking and labels that are not only slow and labor-intensive, but fail to convince those already polarized, surprising validators can be automatically identified by social media with Internet speed, scale, and economy, and work like Trojan Horses to penetrate closed minds. 

I am seeking to publish a fuller discussion of this and why it is is the best way to reverse polarization and create a "cognitive immune system" that can help protect our democracy.


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