When I watch election polls rolling out of the United States and Europe, with big margins of voters willing to back the previously unthinkable, my mind keeps straying back to the story, reported this summer, of Timothy Trespas.
Mr. Trespas, an unemployed guy in his early 40s who lives in New York, began noticing a problem a few years ago: He is being stalked by strangers. Dozens of people are following him all the time, and they occasionally whisper mysterious things in his ear. He went online to see what was wrong. A search revealed tens of thousands of people plagued with similar "gang-stalking" problems. They call themselves "targeted individuals," or TIs, and they've created hundreds of YouTube videos and dozens of e-books on the phenomenon, explaining the government plots behind it. They've organized support groups (key advice: don't see a psychiatrist). Mr. Trespas, as he told Mike McPhate of The New York Times, lost his friends and became more fearful and withdrawn. He only believes news from TI sites.
Gang-stalking theories are well known to the psychiatric community: They are classic symptoms of schizophrenia and other delusion-based diseases. In recent years, professionals have reacted with alarm as people have stopped reaching out for help and instead reach for their browsers. There they find only confirmation of their delusions. If you come to suspect that vapour trails are actually mind-control chemicals, or that the "spherical-Earth theory" is a fraud, you will find limitless amounts of support, and a welcoming community that protects you from alternative views.
It is tempting to think of Mr. Trespas as the very model of the modern voter. Are many of our fellow citizens, like him, getting information only from sources that confirm their ideologies, preconceptions and pathologies?
It's not difficult to find people on Twitter or Facebook, or sometimes at family gatherings, who seem to live in ideologically isolated, self-confirming worlds – or, in the phrase coined by Internet entrepreneur Eli Pariser, "filter bubbles." But, it turns out, such people are both very rare and also very atypical – perhaps increasingly so, studies keep showing.
The most recent research, by Andrew Guess of New York University, assembled a representative sample of 1,400 people across the United States, sorted them by self-declared ideology and monitored everything they viewed and shared for three weeks. It found that the online sources used by almost all Republicans were almost identical to those used by most Democrats, and those were mainly the less ideologically polarized, big-tent mass media everyone uses – except at rare, intense moments, when they would glance at Fox News or Breitbart or some other partisan website, then return to the centre. But for the most part, everyone was hearing everyone else's voices.
Another study, completed in March by three researchers at Oxford, Stanford and Microsoft Research, looked at the activities of 50,000 Americans. It found that social media are indeed increasing "the ideological distance between individuals" – people are fighting from partisan positions – but that "these same channels also are associated with an increase in an individual's exposure to material from his or her less-preferred side of the political spectrum," and that mainstream news sources still account for the "vast majority" of what ideologically polarized people visit.
A large-scale study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago similarly found "no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time." And a 2014 study by four scholars at the Wharton School found that Internet filtering was causing not fragmentation but, in fact, an "increase in commonality with others."
It appears, from this work, that people are not being isolated into self-confirming thought ghettos; rather, they have more sources than ever before, and prefer the credible ones – but they're also members of communities of believers who influence them, sometimes darkly. It is community, not content, that causes extremism.
As those studies show, the Internet has compartments, but it also has a lot of cracks. They're how the light gets in. A lot of people have been won over by bad ideas, but they're able and willing to listen – so it's worth the effort to try to persuade them otherwise.