Why the Politicized Climate Debate is Even More Politicized Than it Need Be

The Internet’s ‘filter bubble’, at its worst in the blogosphere, is furthering the deep politicization on climate change. Does sparring with those holding different opinions offer a way out?

It is an odd thing: Many of us choose to inhabit intellectually constricted worlds at a time when, thanks to the Internet, we have easy and instant access to a wide range of world views. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof addressed this paradox in 2009:

“When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.”

Commentary

This sort of cocooning balkanizes public debate, Kristof argued. In theory, we may believe in the clash of opinions, “but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber,” he wrote.

This tendency is most pronounced in the blogosphere. For example, climate skeptics and contrarians naturally gravitate to What’s Up With That and those passionately concerned about global warming seek sustenance at Climate Progress, to cite two popular climate sites that are on opposite ends of the debate.

But it seems that our Web habits — everything from our Google searches to our personalized Yahoo! news sites — may be sealing that cocoon even tighter. This is the thesis of Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. Pariser is the former Executive Director of the liberal site, Moveon.org. He believes in the connective power of the Internet as a force for social good. But he’s also worried that the creeping “personalization” of the Web, the online customization of our books, movies, and news preferences, threatens to permanently erode the civic commons of society.

“What was once an anonymous medium,” Pariser says, has now become a giant electronic trawler and sifter of consumer information. Today, “algorithmic observers” watch what you click and examine “the things you seem to like — the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like — and tries to extrapolate … Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us — what I’ve come to call a filter bubble — which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.” (Here is an excerpt from the book.)

The implications for the climate debate are obvious. If we’re content to remain marooned at our Web-enhanced islands of political and ideological affirmation, then there are no civic bridges to a shared understanding of climate change.

Traditional media, for all its imperfections, may offer the few places left for us to share a common space. Most mainstream newspapers, for example, try to keep their biases in check and provide an outlet for a variety of worldviews.

Social media, in contrast, seems to just fill up our private island with like-minded inhabitants. In his book, Pariser offers an interesting anecdote that unwittingly reveals how natural it is to ignore those who don’t share your politics or views. He writes:

“Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I’ve gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they’d post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them. But their links never turned up in my Top News Feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’ — and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either. So no conservative links for me.”

Leaving aside that Pariser seemed to “befriend” just a few token conservatives, evidently more as a curiosity than out of a sincere desire to engage with them, it’s worth pointing out that, for all his high-minded talk (elsewhere in his book) about democracy requiring “citizens to see things from another’s point of view,” he obviously wasn’t very interested in the views of his conservative Facebook “friends.”

As Pariser readily observes, “we are turning media into a mirror that reflects our own prejudices back at us.”

Given how fully an unseen digital hand reinforces these prejudices, is there anything that can be done? In his 2009 Times column, Kristof offered a smart tip:

“So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.”

That seems like a prescription for a more constructive climate debate, as well.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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7 Responses to Why the Politicized Climate Debate is Even More Politicized Than it Need Be

  1. Menth says:

    Very interesting. As much as I agree with the “cocoon model”
    of online media consumption and have described it as such in the past, it’s also important to mention a pervasive online archetype: the Troll.

    That said, this article reminds of a great concept I’ve only recently stumbled upon; the Ideological Turing test.

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/06/the_ideological.html

    “…Mill states it well: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct. And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct. … It’s not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views. But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.”

    While the article linked to above is about economics it would be interesting to see an “ideological turing test” between opponents in the climate debate.

  2. thingsbreak says:

    My RSS feed has more “climate skeptic” blogs in it than climate blogs. Part of that is admittedly because I am more likely to actually visit climate blogs in a browser, but the driving intention is to always see what the “opposing” narrative is. While this does help me unpack some “skeptic” complaints better, it doesn’t do much to encourage dialog.

    However, I come from a very politically/economically conservative family. Speaking with people in real life has done much more to help me understand the actual drivers of climate “skepticism” in the general public (vs. “technical lukewarmers” or what have you).

    I find that a lot of people who consider themselves to be skeptics are completely unaware of the field of detection and attribution. They are unaware that they’re “allowed” to decouple concerns with the economic consequences of mitigation from the scientific evidence. They’re unaware that most of the mainstream domestic mitigation plans are market-based rather than command and control.

    I think what I’m trying to get at is that visiting “opposing” corners of the internet is a great idea, but it’s necessarily going to reflect a certain facade. Actual motivations may turn out to be quite different than ostensible concerns over dendrochronology or belief that cosmic rays are controlling the climate.

  3. JeffN says:

    Amen. It’s not just that people on both sides end up cocooning, but that they become so immersed in their warm cozy blanket that they believe any other position (not just that of the other side) is not only unworthy of debate, but insane.
    While it’s fun to juxtapose Watts up with That against Climate Progress, the more interesting is the fight between Climate Progress and The Breakthrough Institute. Two liberal groups who believe that global warming is a catastrophic problem yet they hate each other because each dares to question the assumptions in the other’s cocoon.
    Three problems with this- 1. there is no reason to even talk to people you consider evil or insane and 2. there is no reason to talk to people who consider you evil or insane and 3. nothing will happen unless talking occurs.

  4. Gaythia says:

    I think that bigger forces are at play than just the internet. WWII was a homogenizing influence on this country, and afterwards, the growth of a large middle class was supported by our economic and educational institutions.

    I think that it is our deepening economic divide that drives the sense of loss of common purpose, which is then exhibited in places like our media selection on the internet and elsewhere.

    Certainly, once we are isolated, it is hard to bridge those differences.

  5. Mike Mangan says:

    Heh. There’s only one side that needed to have a conversation and that’s the side that chose dripping arrogance and contempt as their attitude instead. Makes our game plan very simple. Give them the bird, outvote them, and ultimately defund them.

    “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”
    -Robert Heinlein

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    Gaythia,

    I’m not sure we can attribute the polarization to an economic divide. I tend to think this is mostly a function of the extremes being accentuated by an echo chamber effect. Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that the rise of cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet provides the outlets that each of us seeks out to reinforce our pre-existing political and ideological biases. Mind you, I’m not suggesting we go back to time when there was only a dozen or so TV channels to choose from. I just think we have to work harder not to cocoon ourselves.

    JeffN;

    Yes, ideological purity, as we’ve seen in the example you cited, and more broadly with the Tea Partyization of the Republican party, is a bane of civil discourse.

    Thingsbreak,
    I think we should assume that the majority of newspaper and blog readers don’t leave comments. So I would distinguish between having an online dialogue with commenters and the more generally useful purpose of just exposing yourself to a plurality of perspectives.

  7. Phil Meyer says:

    Social psychologists have known since 1961 that groups tend to take more extreme positions than individuals. At first it was called the “risky shift” phenomenon. But then somebody noticed that groups sometimes move to extremely cautious positions as well. So now it is called “group polarization.” Looks like the Internet is enabling that. Or does its power to inform also contain some self-correcting capacity? Let’s keep watching.