Does the internet promote extremism and crazy rumors?

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker discusses whether the internet promotes the spread of bizarre rumors by encouraging "group polarization":

People’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with like-minded others has become known as “group polarization”...

“Views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible, or bizarre in most communities,” Sunstein observes. Racists used to have to leave home to meet up with other racists (or Democrats with other Democrats, or Republicans with Republicans); now they need not even get dressed in order to “chat” with their ideological soul mates.
“It seems plain that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another,” Sunstein writes. He refers to this process as “cyberpolarization.”
Put the Web’s filtering tools together with cyberpolarization and what you get, by Sunstein’s account, are the perfect conditions for spreading misinformation. Who, on liberal blogs, is going to object to (or even recognize) a few misstatements about Sarah Palin? And who, on conservative blogs, is going to challenge mistaken assertions (or, if you prefer, lies) about President Obama?

The article implies that the internet has led to an increase in group polarization, extremism, and crazy rumors. But is this actually true? I'm not sure. The article describes all the crazy rumors that have circulated online about Obama, but crazy rumors have flourished in every era of history.
(Thanks, Gary!)

Technology Urban Legends

Posted on Sun Nov 08, 2009


I guess the question is whether the internet is causing a drop in tavern business, replaced by a rise in drinking alone in front of the computer screen. That's the impression I've gotten, from the goofballs I've known, as to where they used to share their ideas. Though maybe that portion of their business has now been replaced by more couples getting together there, after finding each other on-line, so I guess that wouldn't be a simple matter to track.
Posted by hoaxinghal  on  Mon Nov 09, 2009  at  06:18 AM
The point about crazy rumors existing in every era of history speaks for itself. I believe that the modern era of nearly instantaneous communication gives rumors and weird opinions greater traction in the mind of the general public.

It brings to my mind the quote attributed to Churchill: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
Posted by KDP  in  Madill, OK  on  Mon Nov 09, 2009  at  08:50 AM
As the posting on Nov 8th can demonstrate: "Helen Keller invented secret sign language code so that Satanists like George Bush, Prince William, Elizabeth Tayor and many more could show allegienc". The Internet has supplied these kinds of people with a voice and an audience they would never have had otherwise. The Internet has made us dumber on a much higher level than before. IMHO.
Posted by Charles  in  Michigan  on  Mon Nov 09, 2009  at  02:00 PM
I'm afraid the internet is the ideal tool for people who would previously have felt powerless in the face of facts or opinions that make them uncomfortable. If you hate the idea of a black person having a job when you don't, you can find a website that legitimises your hatred - you don't have to go near the sites that tell you how stupid that is. In some cases people find comfort in ideas that are just bizarre: so bizarre that if they thought them up themselves they'd never articulate them; but when they see a website giving them an appearance of authority, and discover that some of their fellow idiots have dreamed up 'proofs' of their theories, they joyfully embrace them.

The internet has extended the principle of the free market to reality itself. Don't like the reality you've got? Shop around on the internet and get a better one. Of course, the real reality may come up and punch you on the nose eventually, but it's going to take a while before that fact gets through to some people.
Posted by Mr Henderson  in  Teddington UK  on  Mon Nov 09, 2009  at  02:23 PM
How would you measure a society's overall polarization? And how would you manage to isolate Internet-caused polarization from other types?
Posted by Accipiter  on  Mon Nov 09, 2009  at  03:17 PM
I think the saddest (and old tendency) is to create bogus dichotomies which even ends up being part of this argument (is the internet something creating polarization or is it the same as ever?).

The truth is in between. There have always been people with different beliefs and people at the same time seek validation/affirmation for their beliefs. However, history has shown a tendency to try to limit superstition and irrationality for the last few hundred years. Sure, there have been major movements "backward" but there has been a lot of progress and enlightenment.

The internet does create differences and I am not sure Sunstein gets at what is different (I am not an expert in any sense either). There have long been polarizing tendencies along with herd influences. What is different is the level and immediacy of evidence and our ability to handle it.

What I see is a lack of perspective (which is why hoaxing/gullibility is increasingly easy) which is unique; we are educated and given information to a certain extent but we have lost a way of creating perspective--and often perspective is manufactured by the medium giving us the information that we can see past somewhat but also ultimately leaves most people completely rudderless in a sea filled with "info debris".

Some of this is not new but the mix of things is new and I am not sure if we "know how to know" well enough to avoid some serious problems.
Posted by floormaster squeeze  on  Tue Nov 10, 2009  at  07:46 AM
The only real difference the internet has really made is the speed at which a rumor can spread. The credulous and knee-jerk reactionaries that spread this type of crap have always been around. Human nature hasn't changed, but communication technology most certainly has.
Posted by Kirkw8804  in  Seattle  on  Tue Nov 10, 2009  at  09:01 PM
I read on the Internet somewhere that there is an invisible space alien that lives in the sky. He shot a laser or beam of light or something at the Earth and it impregnated this chick! Then the baby grew up and got killed but he came back to life! Like a zombie! Then he flew up into the sky!

It's a fact!
Posted by Mitur Binesderti  on  Fri Jan 15, 2010  at  11:29 AM
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