Initially, the use of the Internet appeared to provide a great opportunity for people all over the world to be much better informed and so to have their perspectives broadened. It was an apparent opportunity that promised diminishment of social antagonisms arising from ignorance and ill-informed biases. But as too often happens, wide public use of the Internet has had the opposite result. Rather than broadening people’s perspectives, the Internet and its integral social media have effectively narrowed their perspectives. They have done so by in effect promoting a preference for personally shared opinion over impersonal truth or factuality.
I am not referring to shared opinion as being or including judgement or estimation shared on the basis of some measure of confirmation and expertise. I am referring to opinion shared just on the basis of coincidental concurrence of beliefs. My focus is how too many people are resting content with their beliefs when they find others who hold the same beliefs, and not worrying about factually confirming those beliefs. The occurrence of and subsequent preference for shared opinion over factual verification has increased tremendously, thanks to the Internet, and users are entrenching their views rather than being moved to adopt new, broader ones.
The mechanics of how the Internet has narrowed perspectives involve two main factors. The first of these factors is that the Internet has given everyone a voice by enabling anyone with sound or unsound ideas to communicate those ideas to literally millions of others by posting them on various sites. The second factor is that given the breadth of the digital audience, someone somewhere in that vast digital audience will agree with virtually any idea expressed. Users who post their ideas and partialities readily find support for even the most bizarre notions. Shared opinion is easily found.
There is nothing new about individuals favouring others’ personal agreement with their beliefs over impersonal factual verification of those views. This is a side of human psychology that has characterised human beings as long as they have existed and communicated with one another. What is different today is the sheer scope of access to others’ agreement. When people had communicative access only to family members, friends, colleagues, and recently-met strangers, there were practical limits on finding others who agreed with their beliefs. The Internet radically changed that by giving users access to millions of other users. All it takes is logging on to one or another site and posting something or scanning postings. At worst one can type a word or phrase for search-engines to find sites carrying relevant expressions of opinion on every conceivable topic.
The most worrying negative result of favouring shared opinion over factual verification is that it generates a perception of fellowship. There is a powerful inclination for users to identify with those who share their opinions and to think of them and themselves as members of an ‘in’ group. This inclination is most evident in the case of those holding racist views. Individuals who encounter agreement from others on their racist views construe that agreement not just as having established contact with others who are like-minded, but as having achieved contact with their fellows, with others of their own kind. This perception of fellowship, this feeling of comradeship, fosters narrow thinking, not only by providing support through shared opinion, but by undermining independent thought. It does so by generating a strong tendency to maintain harmonious group affiliation. This tendency prioritises group membership and communal good feeling over personal changes of mind. Though he was mainly concerned with the actions of politically active groups, such as White House insiders, Irving Janis gave this tendency an apt name in Victims of Groupthink, calling it “concurrence-seeking.”
Essentially, the tendency to maintain group harmony or concurrence-seeking centres on a readiness on the part of individual members to qualify and downplay any reservations or doubts each might develop while maintaining contact with members of a shared-opinion group. In this way, individuals’ independence of thought is jeopardised by concern for group harmony. Concurrence-seeking or maintaining group harmony also produces a proclivity on the part of group members to dismiss views held by those outside the group. This proclivity essentially precludes compromise. While negative enough in various contexts, such preclusion is most dangerous and potentially disastrous in the political realm. Compromise is a defining feature of democratic governance, and impeding it jeopardises democracy. We are presently witnessing what happens to a democratic government when compromise is all but impossible to achieve due to partisanship.
I come now to my depressing conclusion. Shared opinion as I have described it will continue to supersede factuality. The very idea of factual confirmation seems to be escaping our collective consciousness. There are different reasons for this. One reason is that socio-political partisanship has forced television and print news-media to slant their coverage in order to cater to select audiences in order to survive and profit — witness the difference between CNN and Fox News. This has made people distrust some sources of factually-confirming information and trust others too much. Another reason is Internet related and is the literally amazing growth in the production and spread of doctored and bogus photos, videos, and descriptive postings. Today pictures do lie. A third reason is that scientific data is now doubted due to felt-certainty it represents only particular perspectives or serves vested interests. This is how anti-vaxxers disdain positive scientific affirmations about vaccinations.
A fourth and deeper reason for shared opinion increasingly superseding factuality is that digital communication on the Internet and especially smartphones has changed us irremediably. Digital communication is now an ongoing conversation that takes precedence over face-to-face exchanges. And there is no chance that use of smartphones, tablets, and laptops will decline. Instead, such use will grow as the apparatuses become available to those who today cannot afford them. The favouring of shared opinion over factuality will increase and there will be greater socio-politically dangerous coalescing of shared-opinion groups.