By Alyssa Long
With endless digital platforms teeming with information, the internet has become a vital source for opinion formation but also a threat to informed public discourse and democracy, says a leading German scholar who visited UC Santa Barbara.
“Users appear to be competent in their information-sharing,” said Nicole Krämer, professor of social psychology, media, and communication at the University of Duisberg-Essen.
Earlier this week, Krämer presented her research at the Center for Information Technology and Society about the potentially negative effects of opinion-building online.
The internet has democratized political and social news, but this ease of access has made the spread of misinformation possible, she said. Krämer explained that online comments from any user may override the research-based journalism of an article and that negative comments are especially influential to a reader’s opinion.
Echo chambers—online environments filled with people who share similar opinions— are another means of spreading misinformation online. Krämer warned that echo chambers threaten democracy, narrowing the political worldview within these circles.
Krämer explained that these echo chambers come partly from algorithms in websites that sense what people want to see based on their searches, resulting in “filter bubbles” of one-sided content.
But she noted that these algorithms would not be as effective without the psychology behind information selection. “Humans prefer information that matches their own opinions,” she said, calling the tendency “selective exposure” and “confirmation bias”.
Krämer presented evidence from a social network analysis by Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic (2015), which showed that people choose to connect primarily with others of the same opinions over social media. “Only 20 percent of a user’s Facebook friends are from the ‘other’ political direction,” Krämer said.
Perhaps more subtle and deceptive than these filter bubbles and echo chambers is fake news, which Krämer defined as non-accidentally misleading information. “Fifty-nine percent of links are shared without once looking at them,” Krämer said. “Repetition is a really problematic factor. Messages we see more than once are seen to be more believable.”
Fake news poses a threat to democracy due to what she calls the “false information” effect. “One’s processed information is hard to correct afterwards,” she said, because information is most compelling when it matches with ones existing worldview, and there is little incentive for someone to change supporting information. “A person’s worldview determines how messages are selected, interpreted, and remembered,” she said.
Krämer also described the concept of “micro-targeting,” in which a person’s private traits can be predicted through their digital behavior. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, claim the ability to tailor persuasive messages to people based on their online presences. Krämer and other scholars are skeptical, because persuasion is much more complicated than packaging information that marketers can derive from a digital profile.
She emphasized that the internet is not innately harmful—just a tool that provides platforms for people to share information. “In the end, it comes down to people having certain tendencies,” she said.
The internet is an incredible, free resource, but in this digital age, she urges the public to be more aware than ever when selecting information on which to base opinions and worldview.
Alyssa Long is a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Communication. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.