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Google, Group Polarization, and Jon Stewart

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A vast majority of people use Google to search for information, and those searches can contribute to group polarization and extremism.

In the October 12 issue of the New Yorker, Ken Auletta, in an article titled "Searching for Trouble" about Google, quotes from Nicholas Carr's book The Big Switch:

A company run by mathematicians and engineers, Google seems oblivious to the possible social costs of transparent personalization. They impose homogeneity on the Internet's wild heterogeneity. As the tools and algorithms become more sophisticated and our online profiles more refined, the Internet will act increasingly as an incredibly sensitive feedback loop, constantly playing back to use, in amplified form, our existing preferences."

And Auletta continues:

Carr believes that people will narrow their frame of reference, gravitate toward those whose opinions they share, and perhaps be less willing to compromise, because the narrow information we receive will magnify our differences, making it harder to reach agreement.

Tax Day Tea Party protesters, birthers, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh fans on the far right and anti-nuclear power and legalize-marijuana activists on the left do not search for information that does not confirm their biases. They seek information, typically by searching for it on Google, that reinforces their prejudices, as, frankly, we all tend to do. We then fan the flames of our prejudices by watching demagogic bloviators on TV or listening to them on radio as they give us our reinforcing dopamine fix.

In his book Going To Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor and head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, writes about group polarization, or how when groups discuss an issue and share their views with each other, the views tend to move toward extremes.

As an example, Sunstein discusses the spread of conspiracy theories:

For the purposes of understanding the spread of conspiracy theories, it is especially important to note that group polarization is particularly likely, and particularly pronounced, when people have a shared sense of identity and are connected by bonds of solidarity.

Thus, self-selected and self-defined members of a group with a shared sense of identity, such as anti-Obama right wingers or anti-regulation business people, are likely to share information (blogs, message boards, etc.) and, thus, become polarized and more extreme in their views.

We tend to believe that lots of information is good for a democratic society, and in theory it is. However, in practice there is now so much information (content) available that it is possible by means of selective searches and selective perception to create an echo chamber so that opposing sounds are never heard.

When America got its news from just three network early newscasts, and then mostly from Walter Cronkite, there was a homogenizing effect. Virtually all adults were exposed to the same relatively balanced (and bland) news. They had to work hard to get information from the John Birch Society delivered in brown envelopes in the mail.

Today wing nuts can easily go on Google and create their own hate-filled echo chamber. Therefore, Google, the king of search, is unintentionally aiding in group polarization; whereas Fox News is intentionally doing so.

As responsible citizens, we can do nothing to stop this group polarization and extremism at both ends of the political spectrum, but we can be aware of it and see these positions for what they are -- poisonous extremes -- and understand that the antidote consists of inserting diverse and opposing opinions directly into the veins of polarized extremists.

Short of using force to accomplish this feat individually on extremists, it is the duty of the media to point out the irresponsibility and craziness of these extreme views. No one performs this duty better than Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He is the best antidote to the group polarization and extremism that is being enabled, in part, by Google searches. Watch The Daily Show and stay sane.