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Amor Mundi: Echo Chambers and Motivated Reasoning

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Echo Chambers and Motivated Reasoning

That the internet is an echo chamber in which we encounter sympathetic views that confirm and amplify our deepest convictions is now a truism. But David Robson argues that numerous recent studies cast doubt on the veracity of the truism.

“Using a survey of 2,000 British adults, [Professor Elizabeth Dubois] found that the majority of people already reach outside their political comfort zone: they actively seek out additional sources that convey diverse views that do not match with their preconceptions. Indeed, just 8% of Dubois’s participants scored so low on her measures of media diversity that they could be considered at risk of living an echo chamber, visiting just one or two news services without other perspectives.

Dubois emphasises that even 8% of people living in an echo chamber is still a “worrying” number. But it is far less than most pundits would have anticipated. Most people should have a reasonable idea of what the other side are thinking on current debates. Indeed, there is now evidence that well-meaning attempts to counter the echo chamber and filter bubble, by reading more diverse news sources, may actually backfire – leading to more, and not less, political polarisation.

Along these lines, a team led by Christopher Bail at Duke University measured a group of more than 1,600 Twitter users’ political positions before paying them a small fee to follow a ‘bot’ that would retweet influencers from across the political divide.

About half of the participants took them up on the offer, but rather than developing a more moderate or nuanced stance on issues such as gay rights, most simply came to be more confident of their initial beliefs. (The effect was more pronounced for Republicans, who became significantly more conservative, whereas the Democrats retained roughly the same views.)”

Robson explores a number of explanations for why reading opinions from outside one’s biases might actually lead to an increase in polarization. One explanation in particular is striking, what Robson calls “motivated reasoning.”  

“Countless studies have shown that we are so attached to our political identities that we will devote extra cognitive resources to dismissing any evidence that disagrees with our initial point of view, so that we end up even more sure of our convictions.

Along these lines, linguistic analyses showed that the Republican users began to use more emotive words on their feeds as they were exposed to more liberal viewpoints. “Over time, we see increases in negative sentiment expressed towards opinion liberal leaders,” Bail said, “which we take this to be some evidence that a process like motivated reasoning may be underway, particularly because we saw the [negative feelings] increase over the course of the treatment.”

At the heart of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism is her insight into the loneliness of the modern person. While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual contronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives. To understand the deep need for motivated reasoning means that simply being exposed to opposing opinions does not and will not mitigate the toxic certainty that compels so many today to cling to their stories even when confronted with facts showing those stories to be untrue.

—Roger Berkowitz

Against Anonymity

A #metoo scandal in Political Science has been unfolding on social media and an anonymous message board called Political Science Rumors.

This is the back story: Last January, Rebecca Gill, was on a panel at the Southern Political Science Association conference discussing imposter syndrome in graduate school. She had what she is calling her #metoo moment, recounting an incident of harassment she experienced fifteen years ago. You can read her account here: https://www.facebook.com/rebeccadgill/posts/10100329392786226

In an interview, Gill said that she was not trying to out her harasser, though she provided enough details that anyone in the profession could quickly deduce who she was talking about. Afterward, a long conversation began on the Political Science Rumors site, which lead to the public naming of William Jacoby. Gill was met with support and derision from anonymous users.

Jacoby, in an unpredictable move, decided to post a defense of himself on a professional platform this past Tuesday. Using his position as editor of the American Journal of Political Science, he published a piece stating “It is apparently widely known that allegations related to sexual harassment have been made against me… The allegations are untrue. I never engaged in the behaviors described in the allegations.” His use of the platform was met with fury on Twitter, and demands that the post be taken down. The Midwestern Political Science Association, which publishes the journal, has since removed it from the website and issued a statement apologizing. Jacoby has resigned as editor.

Political Science Rumors is a scourge on the profession. It is self-described as “The forum for Political Scientists to discuss Political Science and rumors in the profession.” It is a platform for heresy, anonymous allegations, racially charged bile, and sexist mockery. The Rumor Mill reflects the worst of Political Science. By creating a dedicated online space for individuals to anonymously make claims it creates a culture of cynicism, resentment, and indignation.

Gill’s anonymous allegations against Jacoby were taken to another level through the use of this platform. While she did not name the man who allegedly harassed her, a mass of individuals collectively outed Jacoby as the accused. While his name was being publically dragged through the mud by an anonymous mob, he used his professional position to defend himself. This only exacerbated the problem, because people saw him using a position of power as an editor at a top journal to give himself a platform. A platform Gill does not have equal access too. From the moment he was named he was put into a lose-lose situation, as is often the case with those who are targets of anonymous allegations fueled by moralistic witch hunts.

In an interview with Insidehighered.com, an anonymous moderator for the Political Science Rumors site said in its defense, “we provide an anonymous forum to promote dialogue that can be difficult to have in person. Moderation is a fine line, each post is considered carefully,” the moderator said. In the Gill case in particular, it is “not clear what is true and what is not, so we are leaving many posts on the matter open for discussion, waiting for evidence.”

Here is a snapshot of discussion threads on the site from Saturday:

And here are two examples of what the conversations are like:


These are not the kind of important conversations difficult to have in person, the kind that the moderator defends. Or rather, they are the kinds of conversation no one would have in person because they are as offensive as they are thoughtless; it is clear from the content that there is no careful consideration of anything.

If anything, this forum harms the profession. It makes it more difficult to have real conversations, to engage in thoughtful dialogue. The vast majority of posts on this site are anything but considered. Political Scientists should demand that it be shut down or that users be required to register comments with their actual names.

—Samantha Hill

Character Assassination

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard someone ranting about how Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel investigating collusion between members of the Trump administration and Russia, was a horrible man who had over and again knowingly left innocent men to die in their cells. I had no idea what this was about, but it had all the trappings of an ideologically-driven lie, what goes today by the name #fakenews. Thankfully, Nancy Gertner, a retired Federal Judge, explains and refutes this unsubstantiated character assassination.

—Roger Berkowitz

“This question, which has been raised before, is being addressed again — this time by some of President Trump’s most ardent supporters on the right, especially Fox News’s Sean Hannity but also Rush Limbaugh and others. My friend Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard Law School professor, has also weighed in.

In an April 8 interview with John Catsimatidis on his New York radio show, Mr. Dershowitz asserted that Mr. Mueller was “the guy who kept four innocent people in prison for many years in order to protect the cover of Whitey Bulger as an F.B.I. informer.” Mr. Mueller, he said, was “right at the center of it.” Mr. Bulger was a notorious crime boss in Boston, the head of the Winter Hill Gang, and also a secret source for the F.B.I.

There is no evidence that the assertion is true. I was the federal judge who presided over a successful lawsuit brought against the government by two of those men and the families of the other two, who had died in prison. Based on the voluminous evidence submitted in the trial, and having written a 105-page decision awarding them $101.8 million, I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mueller, who worked in the United States attorney’s office in Boston from 1982 to 1988, including a brief stint as the acting head of the office, had no involvement in that case. He was never even mentioned.

The case wasn’t about Whitey Bulger but another mobster the F.B.I. was also protecting, the hit man Joseph Barboza, who lied when he testified that the four men had killed Edward Deegan, a low-level mobster, in 1965. Mr. Barboza was covering for the real killers, and the F.B.I. went along because of his importance as an informant.

But the evidence — or rather, lack of it — hasn’t stopped the piling on against Mr. Mueller, particularly by Mr. Hannity. In a March 20 broadcast, he said, “Robert Mueller was the U.S. attorney in charge while these men were rotting in prison while certain agents in the F.B.I. under Mueller covered up the truth.””

The Need for Local Journalism

Local journalism is in decline. Writing for the Washington Post, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, discuss how the crisis of local journalism has become a crisis of democracy“Journalism faces many problems. Trust in the press is declining. Americans increasingly turn to partisan sources for information,” they write. The article was prompted in part by a round of firings at the Denver Post, which led the staff to publish an attack on the paper’s owners. Private investment firms buy-up local papers often with more concern for the bottom line that reporting, leading to layoffs, and less local news.

This experience is typical. From 1990 to 2016, the number of newspaper employees in the United States dropped from from 456,300 to about 183,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those numbers understate the decline in many areas. For instance, in the 1990s, the San Jose Mercury News, a major newspaper in Northern California, employed 400 union-represented journalists. But in a recent count by the newspaper union, the number of unionized newsroom staffers in the South Bay for Bay Area News Group, which includes the Mercury News, was down to 41.

The firing of local reporters and privatization of newspaper companies has a direct impact on citizens. With less local news, residents have less access to information about schools, elections, and their communities. As the authors point out, several studies have demonstrated that voting declines concomitantly with reporting.

We need honest journalism more than ever today, in our political charged and divisive environment. A way for people to connect with one another and their government at a local level. This is becoming more and more difficult because of the way newspapers are run.”

Dancing Without Chains

Hollis Robbins has been teaching and lecturing in China about American and African American literature. She notest that Chinese scholars are dealing with government censorship and self-censorship, and that she heard the phrase “dancing with chains” used to describe the effort to write about topics that might run afoul of governmental authorities. At the same time, Robbins was struck by the freedom with which Chinese scholars could approach American literature.

“For me, the absence of identity politics in China is liberating. Chinese scholars do not care about my background or ancestors, only my arguments and my evidence. I’m seen as objective. During my talk I remarked that two Jewish scholars whose talks included old photographs of family members killed in the Holocaust were engaging in a very American form of scholarship. American eyebrows shot up, but not Chinese. The Chinese scholars sharing the panel could not — and would not — make a personal appeal during an academic presentation. An “unspoken assumption” of Chinese interest in Holocaust studies, a prominent Chinese scholar remarked, is that while comparisons to the Nanjing Massacre may be made, one must be warily respectful of American scholars’ emotional attachment to their topic. The personal attachments that are the norm in American academia are absent in China.

“Do you really think the politics of personal identity has no place in academia?” an American graduate student challenged during the Q&A. The phenomenon of aligning one’s ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, religion, class, et cetera, to one’s scholarship is only a few decades old. It is too early to tell if this new subjectivity is normal or good but it should be noticed that China is taking a very different path. Chinese scholars dancing with chains to negotiate strict state limitations on their own academic freedom are keeping a close eye on the self- and socially-imposed constraints binding American scholars.

I was peppered by Chinese graduate students after my talk for examples of fear limiting academic discussion in America. I mentioned the student protesters protesting a humanities course at Reed College in Oregon last year.

I also mentioned an earlier University of Minnesota controversy after the Charlie Hebdo murders. A poster announcing an academic discussion had featured a fairly benign cartoon drawing with CENSORED stamped on it. Some students complained. A months-long formal university investigation followed that found no wrongdoing but cautioned faculty to be careful about what subjects should be publicized. Ah, “dancing with chains,” one student said, and everyone laughed. The Chinese can’t get enough of these stories.

Those arguing for the uselessness of a university education should recognize that American literature is quite obviously useful to the Chinese. I am brought back to the foundations of why we study literature and history in the first place: to understand a culture and a country. The Chinese scholars studying ethnic and minority literature specifically are interested in questions of what constitutes or separates a culture and whether courses devoted to specific literatures brings people together or drives them apart. These are questions worth asking and what the Chinese are learning from the American experience is grim.

Chinese scholars are close-reading our cultural texts and our scholarship from a critical distance, and we might feel the sting of being pinned to cardboard as objects of study. And yet the phenomenon of another nation’s interest in our literature might offer the best argument for the relevance of the humanities for those who don’t see why literary studies is vitally important to national well being. We would do well to take notice.”

Posted on 22 April 2018 | 8:00 am

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