In the evolution of social systems, the concept of diversity of ideas, arguments, or ways of living has been consistently promoted as a crucial ideal of well-functioning (democratic) societies (Habermas, 1962; Mill, 1848). But why? It has been proposed that when individuals encounter politically and civically relevant information or arguments that challenge or even contradict their point of view, they tend to enlarge their horizons (Sunstein, 2017), extend their political knowledge (Scheufele, Nisbet, Brossard, & Nisbet, 2004), develop political tolerance (Mutz, 2002), or gain a greater understanding for the arguments of the opponents’ position (Price, Cappella, & Nir, 2002). Likewise, when individuals get in touch with each other and get to know those people better who may differ from them in certain aspects, they are able to reduce their prejudices against each other (Allport, 1954; Binder et al., 2009).
Indeed, research has shown that while most people would agree that being exposed to diversity (e.g., when it comes to seek information) is important, they fail in living up to this ideal (Kim & Pasek, 2016), that is, they do not break information-seeking habits. In many instances, emerging social media technologies have been discussed as both: a means to reinforce ideological enclaves and as forums that “make it much easier for ordinary people to learn about countless topics, hold their governments accountable, and seek out endlessly diverse opinions” (Sunstein, 2017, p. 262). Still, human choices as well as technological algorithms hold the risk of serving as filters that isolate users from dissenting views or arguments when it comes to consume information online.
In many cases, algorithms help individual users to customize or personalize their information consumption which could lead to narrowing one’s informational horizon (Haim, Graefe, & Brosius, 2018; Pariser, 2011). But what happens when individuals get exposed to opposing views in the midst of a public electoral debate? A recent pre-registered study by sociologist Christopher Bail and colleagues investigated specifically this question in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In their field experiment, researchers asked U.S. Twitter users to answer questions on current policy issues and, based on their responses, participants were labeled as either Republicans or Democrats. Subsequently, participants were invited to follow a newly created Twitter bot that retweeted messages from elected officials or media organizations which were identified as either Democrats or Republicans. Following the idea of being exposed to opposing views, researchers presented Republicans with a Twitter bot which retweeted rather liberal content and Democrats were confronted with a Twitter bot spreading conservative content. After a month of exposure, participants were re-surveyed about their stances on policy issues. Findings appear rather disenchanting: After being presented with a dissenting Twitter bot, Republicans held substantially more conservative views and Democrats exhibited slightly more liberal viewpoints. In other words, the exposure to “the other side” backfired as subjects became more extreme in their views.
So, should we avoid exposure to opposing views? No, this would be a too simplistic conclusion. Bail and colleagues themselves argue that this study’s participants might have become more extreme in their stances because they were exposed to “high-profile elites with opposing political ideologies” (p. 10) which could be polarized themselves. In other words, participants might have been confronted with extremely opposing viewpoints (being articulated rather assertive) what let them feel pressured and increased their internal resistance to uncongenial arguments. Thus, does it matter WHO expresses opposing stances? Does it make a difference whether we expose to dissenting views by personal choice or by external forces? To what extent does it matter HOW alternative or opposing opinions have been expressed? Given the present findings, it seems worthwhile to assume a more nuanced view of what it means to be exposed “to the other side” and which context facilitates and inhibits desirable outcomes (such as developing political tolerance).
From a practical point of view, it seems advisable to actively seek different standpoints in personal conversations or in social media and reflect upon those. When doing so, it might help neglecting group thinking in terms of “us” versus “them” mentalities and focus on issues and arguments. Following this logic, exposing to “the other side” can entail very enriching and meaningful experiences.
Having said that, we can only recommend the on-going project organized by German media organizations (which has been conducted in other countries, too): “My country talks” (“Deutschland spricht”). This project invites individual citizens to meet another citizen who has an opposing view on a given issue. Each pair of citizens is free to choose the context and how they address the issue. In Germany, on September 23rd 2018, another round of “My Country Talks” is going to take place. We’re curious to hear participants’ accounts about their experiences and get to know both sides of the story!
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Binder, J., Zagefka, H., Brown, R., Funke, F., Kessler, T., Mummendey, A., … Leyens, J.-P. (2009). Does contact reduce prejudice or does prejudice reduce contact? A longitudinal test of the contact hypothesis among majority and minority groups in three european countries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 843–856. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013470
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Price, V., Cappella, J. N., & Nir, L. (2002). Does disagreement contribute to more deliberative opinion? Political Communication, 19(1), 95–112. https://doi.org/10.1080/105846002317246506
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