It seems we’ve done wrong by Aristotle, who left us with this gem: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
The Greek sage was right. But, he also didn’t have to contend with social media and the mind-sludge it slings our way. Given Aristotle’s distaste for philosopher-kings, it’s hard to imagine he’d suffer the philosopher-fools who don’t miss an opportunity to climb on their virtual soapboxes.
So what do we do? Chuckle at the misguided dummies. Then, after countless diatribes against THOTs and gun control, we unfriend and maybe read an op-ed that reinforces our own positions. Researchers in the communication sciences realm call this sort of behavior “selective exposure.” And, according to Ivan Dylko at the University of Buffalo, it’s heightened by internet technologies.
Technology democratizes access to diverse ideas and perspectives. It also lets us “customize our online information environment,” said Dylko in a press release. In his research, to be published in the journal Communication Theory, Dylko assessed how the “automatic and consistent inclusion, exclusion and presentation of information” feeds into selective exposure. He ran an experimental study to test his theory, studies on which are currently under peer review.
Selective exposure might not seem like an exclusive product of the digital era; after all, television and newspapers let us choose sources for information and entertainment long before the internet came along. And we’ve always been able to socialize with like-minded friends who reinforced our convictions. But, as the press release points out, “what media consumers did with print and broadcast is not the same process that emerges online.”
Back when people only had a choice between the local Home Town Gazette and County Courier, Dylko contends, they generally ended up reading both, in some capacity. “But online readers can find and then spend hours looking only at content that perfectly fits their psychological and political preferences," said Dylko.
Well, yes, of course. The internet fuses information and interpersonal communication; it throws articles, memes and digital acquaintances at us with unprecedented speed and continuity. We can easily find #content to support and reaffirm what we think, whether we hold mainstream views or we’re members of the fringe factions. As the press release notes, Facebook says 63 percent of users rely on the social media platform. And Facebook sucks as a broad-reaching news source.
Dylko’s position isn’t universally accepted among communication researchers. Others believe that exposure to a glut of diverse ideas increases political open-mindedness. Vast choice doesn’t paralyze intellectual exploration, they maintain. Instead, wading through the scads of both crap and brilliance ultimately forces us to consider other perspectives.
But you tell me — when was the last time you found a civilized, open-minded, fruitful conversation about, say, Donald Trump on Facebook? Right. I’m #TeamDylko on this one.