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The American Mind

Echo Chamber politics

William Hillman

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken

-----Oliver Cromwell, 5 August 1650

(3/2017) What is the real effect of information in politics? More specifically is there a danger of too much information? The common belief is that people use information to expand their view, open their mind. We have been told over the years that to survive, a democracy needs an informed electorate. Is it possible to have too much information? I believe there is a point where people stop using information to expand their mind and use it to build and entrench their own bias views of events.

I am not talking about access to facts. I am talking about information. Information is what is conveyed or represented by arrangement or sequence of facts and opinions.

In the ring counties around Philadelphia there is a higher concentration of college degrees and almost all houses are wired with high-speed internet and cable television. In these areas, voters cast ballots for parties not individuals. This pattern goes back the last four election cycles (the furthest back I can easily obtain reliable election data online). Election outcomes can be accurately predicted for any election by simply knowing voter turnout. This behavior is so strong that two years ago voters in the rich, highly educated and totally wired area of Lower Merion ignored the corruption and ultimate indictment of Congressman Chaka Fattah and gave him an almost a 70% victory over his Republican rival, simply because he was a democrat.

As, I look at voting data further away from the cities, where there is less connection to the internet and no cable television, voting trends dramatically change. It becomes evident in these areas that people vote for the person. In this last election these people voted for Trump for president but then voted for a Democrat for Senator. And a majority of the voters pulled a lever for a democrat for Auditor General and Attorney General. In many cases the same voters went back and then voted for republican for local office.


Of all the Democrat majority counties that Trump won, Democrat candidates also won.

What I believe we are seeing is people with more access to information use that information to strengthen and galvanize their own biases and become more steadfast in their ideology and convictions. People with less access to information are more likely to question their own biases and ideology.

Over the past few election cycles, clear patterns are emerging that support my theory that people with more access to information tend to have very strong biases and are more politically polarized. People do not use information to question their own beliefs and research the validity of assumptions, but use that access to information to seek out support for their own narratives of events.

I first came upon this idea while reading the Black Swan. In his book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns of the danger of information overload and how too much information impedes a personís ability to make choices and see what is truly going on. We build false narratives that fool us into thinking we know why events happened and what will happen. To steal a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, "danger does not lie in what we know, and what we know, we donít know. The danger lies in what we donít know, we donít know."

Unfortunately, most of us donít know what we donít know. We buy into the notion that all events have simple knowable causes and future, events are predictable.

Weíre drawn to information that reinforces our favorite narratives of what is happening and what is going to happen. It is argued that people crave linear causation to events. Trump won the presidency because (your favorite explanation here). The truth is, there is no single cause to why Trump won. As is the case for most (not all) political campaigns, victory or defeat is caused by an infinite number of variables. Many of these variables are outside the control of the candidate, and go unseen by those involved. We only focus on variables that we might have control over.

Todayís news is filled with technical experts in all fields who try to convince us that they know what is going to happen in the markets next week, where the unemployment rate will be this time next year, who will win what political campaign, and what the next terrorist target will be. Their whole industry revolves around them, convincing us, that they have some crystal ball that tells the future. What these experts do have is a better understanding of the mechanics and history of their discipline, but no crystal ball. (My financial adviser knows never to tell me something is a sure thing, and when we talk investments we also talk about hedging investments in case our assumptions are wrong.)

The authoritarianism of the expert is a marketing ploy and we buy into it. Think about all the family savings that were lost by people who believed the real estate experts who said that property value would continue to rise at 15 - 20% per year, with no end in sight. When that market crashed, the people and families who took the "experts'" word as gospel were devastated. How many people go out into the woods, unprepared because a weather forecaster says, no chance of rain today.

This is the reason so many people were devastated by Hillary's loss, they believed all the political pundits who said no one would vote for Trump. They believed the election was predetermined. All the information they surrounded themselves with, reinforced their narrative that Trump was the Devil and Hillary was the second coming of Christ. They went into their Facebook groups of like-minded fanatics, sharing news article and tidbits of information that continued to fuel this narrative. They frothed on stories of Trump demeaning women. In their echo boxes they treated opinions and stories from the Huffington Post as the word of God. Their information filtered facts to build on its own narrative of Hillary good, Trump bad. They saw their issues as the most important issues in the campaign and could not imagine how anyone else could consider other issues. They believed Trump was lying to the American people because the unemployment rate was at the lowest it has been since 2007. What their echo chamber would not let in was the dismal employment participation rate and the decline in average household income over the last 8 years. Their minds were closed to all the other issues that shaped the election. They were stuck in a information loop. And a fish is not aware it is in water until a fisherman pulls it onto land.

The same is true for Trump supporters. They also locked themselves in Facebook pages. They shared negative stories about Hillary and talked about the unfair news media. There will surely be some sad days for those that think Trump can do no wrong.

The less information youíre exposed to, the more open-minded youíre likely to be. Turn off the computer and cable TV and pick up a book.

Read other articles by Bill Hillman