Epistemic Closure Can Kill A Party

Ken AshfordEducation, Election 2018, Fake News, Right Wing Punditry/IdiocyLeave a Comment

An internal poll conducted by the Republican National Committee revealed that “57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance” of winning back the House. That has Republican operatives worried because it signals complacency, which is a problem for the upcoming midterm elections where turnout is key.

It’s not hard to imagine how the 57 percent of strong Trump supporters came to that conclusion. Here’s Walter Shapiro on that:

Convinced that polls are rigged for the Democrats (remember 2016) and conditioned by a president who denounces all criticism as “Fake News,” strong Trump backers have convinced themselves that the Republican Congress is an impregnable fortress.

This is a classic case of what happens when a group of people live in an information bubble. It is helpful to remember what Andrew Levison recently wrote about that. He identified the three layers of the bubble. The first is the national right wing media network, led by Fox News. The second is made up of local conservative media outlets (think Sinclair) who reinforce the propaganda being distributed by national outlets. But here’s how Levison described the third layer:

Finally, and most importantly, it is the network of personal relationships between neighbors and friends that works to validate and confirm the broader messages. Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.”  The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.

In other words, when everyone you know is a Republican, you can’t imagine anyone who isn’t. That is what feeds the complacency. I remember growing up in an extremely conservative small town in Texas and wondering how Hubert Humphrey got elected when everyone hated him. That was long before anyone even dreamed of creating Fox News. It wasn’t until I was living in Minnesota and witnessed the overwhelming out-pouring of respect for the man when he died that my own information bubble got popped.

Authoritarianism requires that kind of information control in order to be successful. And it is precisely why Julian Sanchez was so prescient when he wrote about epistemic closure way back in 2010.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.

Sanchez goes on to describe how that creates a sense of solidarity, but the bubble is also very fragile in that any breach has the potential to undermine the entire information filter.

If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely…And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.

Using my own experience as an example, it was the steady stream of facts that sparked a growing sense of cognitive dissonance that led me to start questioning the entire framework that had been created inside the bubble. Learning that Hubert Humphrey got elected because so many people in Minnesota not only agreed with him, but admired and respected their senator was just one of many examples. Once doubt gets under the hood, a lot of things start crashing.

It is the unconscious awareness of the bubble’s fragility that causes people to defend against even the slightest breach. As Sanchez writes, “A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome [a conversation], because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.”

In my experience, the least effective tool to use against this kind of information bubble is to shout at the true believers about how wrong they are. That doesn’t pose a threat because it merely gives them an excuse to dig in and defend themselves, drawing mostly on anger as the best tool. Instead, it is much more effective to plant small seeds of doubt that have the possibility of creating cognitive dissonance. Once that gets going, the fragility of the entire system becomes exposed.VISI