[Published] Burst the bubble

The toxicity that leads some of us to unplug from social media is a feature, not a bug. 

I’ve been vaguely familiar with the social media app Parler for maybe a year. The free speech haven made a splash after the election, attracting conservatives fed up with perceived bias from Facebook and Twitter. Though Parler imagines itself a free wheeling marketplace of ideas, its recruiting efforts have attracted a decidedly homogenous user base.

Echo chambers are nothing new. But here in Arkansas, we saw an example of the type of rhetoric one can feel comfortable expressing in such a place, when the police chief of a small town posted “parleys” calling for violence against Democrats on the national stage, and in your community.

This piece gave me a chance to revisit some important themes throughout 2020 – that social media coupled with a pandemic is a recipe for heightened partisanship – and to take a look at a new dimension of hyperpolarization: the radicalization resulting from constant enemy-making.

Partisans aren’t just encouraged by affirmations of their in-group; they are galvanized by demonizations of out-groups. Straw men and memes mocking the “other side” prevail across partisan filter bubbles, creating what Italian researchers called an “emotional contagion” of negativity and what a new study out of the University of Virginia deemed a “phenomenon of animosity.”

This was also a chance to share some surface findings from a study of partisan social media bubbles during the election. Look for more of that on the horizon soon.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

Trust in a fake news world

“Fake news” defined an election, and continues to play a prominent role in the presidency of the candidate that most benefited from all of its forms. Gather a bunch of journalism educators together, and it’s no surprise we’re going to want to talk about it. That’s what happened in Chicago at the 2017 annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Continue reading “Trust in a fake news world”

Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception

How do partisans arrive at seeing the world differently than the rest of us? I combed the research that’s been done, and look at where we need to go next.

This paper was presented May 27, 2017 at the International Communication Association Annual Conference in San Diego, Calif.

Political ideologues, religious zealots, die-hard sports fans… people who are heavily invested in a “side” tend to see the world differently than those who don’t have a dog in the fight. Over time, we’ve amassed a wealth of research that exhibits partisans entrench in their positions either by merging evidence into their argument that probably doesn’t belong (something called assimilation), or by dismissing any threatening information as irrelevant, biased, or hostile (contrast).

What’s less clear is how the partisan mind determines its method of biased information processing – how do we choose between assimilation or contrast?

The two have largely been studied in their own separate arenas, but it makes sense for us to come together. The connection has been there for a long time, dating back to the Sherifs’ work on social judgment, which suggested “latitudes” of acceptance or rejection of dissonant messages. More recently, Albert Gunther and colleagues suggested an assimilation-contrast continuum.

But how would that work? I examined the existing literature within two theoretical frameworks – biased assimilation and hostile media perception, to search for key predictors. Those can be grouped into two primary categories: Continue reading “Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception”

Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

A version of this post later appeared as an article for NewsLab, a project of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

Involvement Types and Hostile Media Perception: A Consideration of Campus News

PrintPresented March 27, 2015 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Southeast Colloquium, Knoxville, Tenn., Newspaper and Online News Division.

Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

Hostile media perception (HMP) is a fascinating occurrence. Have two people highly invested in different sides of a divisive issue read the same newspaper article, or watch the same interview, and they will each declare emphatically the exact same message to be hostile toward their side of the argument. We’ve documented this for decades; what we struggle to explain is exactly why it occurs, which makes it difficult to correct for the bias.

This paper – part of a larger study – examines one possible explanation that could equip journalists and other message creators with a way to conquer HMP. We’ve long suggested that higher levels of involvement lead to more careful, and therefore more accurate message processing. The problem for partisans is that when your mind is full of arguments defending your position, thinking about a new argument more carefully probably isn’t going to result in objective reasoning.

Another way of looking at involvement is not in its extremity, but rather its type. Following Johnson and Eagly’s conceptualizations (1989, 1990), this study looked at how value, outcome, and impression involvement related to HMP. Briefly, value involvement refers to deeply held convictions, beliefs, and… well… values. The principles that guide your life. Those contribute to and are shaped by partisanship. They’re also pretty important things to defend, thus likely predictive of HMP. Outcome involvement is triggered when you recognize tangible consequences associated with a message. It would seem to be a deterrent to HMP. You may hate the IRS and everything they stand for, but if news breaks about a change to the tax code that could get you a big refund (or hit you with a huge hike), you might put aside your feelings and try to figure out the particulars. Impression involvement has more to do with fitting in socially, with a tendency to be weaker and more normative than the other involvement types. The assumption is that it won’t affect HMP, but that’s never been tested empirically.

So, an experiment was conducted. Participants – students on a college campus that had just experienced bouts of fraternity and sorority misconduct – read fictitious newspaper articles about disciplinary sanctions being taken against the Greek organizations. This context produced strong partisans on both sides of the issue. And, the more extreme one’s opinion about whether the sanctions were a good idea, the greater the perception that the newspaper article was taking the exact opposite stance – classic HMP.

The involvement types, however, didn’t behave as anticipated. Value involvement predicted increased HMP among those opposed to sanctions, but was overshadowed by the strong influence of outcome involvement. Instead of counteracting perceptual biases, high outcome involvement only served to heighten HMP. For supporters of the sanctions, value involvement actually served as a weak resistance to HMP. About the only clear and expected result was the lack of a relationship between impression involvement and HMP.

Digging deeper into the data, it looked like the strange findings regarding involvement types might have been the result of quick, heuristic defense mechanisms on the part of pro-Greek participants. While supporters of sanctions perceived differences in various article versions fairly accurately, those opposing sanctions saw less nuance and almost uniform bias. This researcher has an idea as to what might have been the catalyst for that information processing shortcut, and explores it in the second phase of this study… coming soon. (Well, soon-ish… he has to finish his dissertation first.)