Audience Capture and Group Polarization: A Toxic Mix

A search for clicks from groups that are increasingly self-radicalizing produces a society where insane lies can flourish.

Hello there! If you’re receiving this, it’s likely that you signed up for my email list “The Constitutional Vanguard” some time back, although a few of you signed up more recently. As fascinating as it would be for me to discuss what has caused the years-long gap between the last email and this one, or the details of my decision to move this list to Substack, I think you’d probably find that slightly less interesting than spending an hour stuck in stop and go traffic with nothing to listen to but a podcast featuring Justin Bieber and Keith Olbermann discussing their favorite breakfast foods. So rather than dwelling on such topics, I’d rather take a couple of paragraphs to talk about the purpose behind this newsletter — paragraphs that will likely alienate half of you and cause a flood of unsubscribes — and then move on to my main topic.

I started the newsletter The Constitutional Vanguard to promote three ideas that I think are critical to society: liberty, free markets, and the Constitution. But there is a group out there that has tried to redefine these terms into something they were never intended to mean. Such as the “liberty” to walk into private business without a mask during a pandemic. Or the “free market” belief that we must impose tariffs on China — an act that is actually a tax on our own consumers here in America. Or the version of the “Constitution” that supposedly says a Vice President can unilaterally decide who the next President will be by counting whatever votes he chooses to count. If you believe in any of these perversions of the concepts of liberty, free markets, and the Constitution, I still welcome you to read this newsletter — but I warn you: you will find little here to reinforce your beliefs — and let’s face it, that’s most people want from the Internet. And that probably means you’re going to want to unsubscribe. Either way, I am not changing what I believe or what I write to cater to the views of such people.

And that is as good an introduction as any to the topic of today’s missive. Because I want to use this newsletter as a way of ruminating on subjects in a deeper fashion than I might do on my blog, and the first topic I want to tackle is the intersection of audience capture and group polarization — because I think this toxic blend is one of the most worrying things happening in our society.

Ask yourself: are there any pundits or politicians you used to follow just three, four, or five years ago, who are unrecognizable to you now? Have you wondered: have they always been this crazy, or did they turn crazy over time — and if they turned crazy, why?

I think I know the answer to this. It’s the intersection of two concepts: audience capture and group polarization.

Everyone is surely familiar with audience capture. Sam Harris had a great podcast recently discussing the concept. Anyone who has been in the business or the hobby of writing, podcasting, Substacking, or doing any kind of regular publishing whatsoever knows about the dopamine rush you can get when something you published goes viral. I started a blog (patterico.com — come visit!) back in 2003, and I have had the heady experience of watching a post I wrote in the morning end up on Fox News that night, or being read by Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck on their radio shows. A post I did during the debates about Obamacare, showing that a supporter of health care reform had pretended to be a doctor at a Texas town hall meeting, got about 100,000 views in a single day and was on Hannity that night! How exciting is that? Of course, the insight that led to that post was fed to me by a longtime reader who is smarter than I am, but still: 100,000 views! Hannity! Look at me! That is intoxicating stuff.

It’s easy to see how this sort of thing can go to your head. A fellow I had a cordial relationship with online — I retweeted his tweets and he retweeted mine; he invited me to contribute pieces to the high-traffic Web site that he co-founded — well, this fella used to light up Donald Trump in an eye-catching way. He called Trump a con man and suggested that Trump was exploiting veterans to avoid a debate and to rake in cash donations that Trump never intended to give to veterans. My former friend was right. He was righteous. And . . . and then he turned into a Trump superfan, and was invited on TV to spout his pro-Trump opinions, and he deleted all those old embarrassing tweets he had written about how Trump was bad. Because, you see, he had been captured. Captured by his audience. His audience wanted pro-Trump content, and he surrendered every principle he had and became determined to provide that content. This fella was last seen suggesting that the crowd that broke windows to enter the Capitol; that crushed a cop in a doorway as they forcibly overran law enforcement as part of an insurrection; that scaled the walls of the Capitol and tore down an American flag to replace it with a Trump flag; that beat a cop lying on the ground with American flags — yeah, that crowd — he said they entered the Capitol because they thought they were allowed to. Recently, this same guy was seen denouncing Twitter because you aren’t allowed to make a hashtag from #1984, which he claimed showed that Twitter was banning discussion of Orwell. How Orwellian! Except, you cannot hashtag any number, and you can hashtag any Orwell reference under the sun that isn’t just a number.

This dude is lost. He was captured by his audience.

Where it gets ugly is when you introduce the second concept: group polarization. I discussed this in a post I wrote in December, and described it as the phenomenon that occurs when “groups of like-minded people, left to converse with one another, tend to gravitate towards a point of view that is as extreme, or often even more extreme, than the views held by the most extreme member of the group before the group congregated.” Cass Sunstein has done work on the concept, but I think the best illustration of the principle came in a post I wrote fourteen years ago (time flies, doesn't it?) in which I told readers this story:

The headmaster of my high school, Stephen Seleny, who grew up in Hungary, once told us a story I’ll never forget. Mr. Seleny’s father was a decent, tolerant man who was appalled by the ugly racist ideology of Hitler. So Mr. Seleny’s father went to a Nazi rally to see first-hand how crowds of people could treat such a monster with such worshipful reverence. At the end of the day, Mr. Seleny’s father returned crying. His son asked him why he was crying. Mr. Seleny’s father replied that he had gone to the Nazi rally. He had heard Hitler speak. He saw the crowd raising their arms in the Nazi salute.

And Mr. Seleny’s father had raised his hand as well, and cried: “Sieg Heil!”

If the mob mentality can overtake you in such a moment even when you disagree with the crowd, you can imagine how you can be radicalized when talking to like-minded people. And experiments have borne out that this happens. Sunstein and a colleague conducted an experiment where they had a group of folks from lefty Boulder, Colorado discuss “climate change, affirmative action, and same-sex civil unions” while another group from conservative Colorado Springs debated the same issues. The results: “People from Boulder became a lot more liberal on all three issues. By contrast, people from Colorado Springs became a lot more conservative.” Also: “Deliberation increased consensus within groups.” Finally: “Deliberation sharply increased the disparities” between the two groups.

Now imagine how this plays out online on social media, where groups congregate precisely because they share a common set of views. Those views will become hardened and more polarized and extreme. So too will their taste for online content: more radical and extreme content will get more clicks.

And a guy who runs a Web site that used to denounce Trump will find that his audience, who may have largely voted for Trump with misgivings, has now hardened in its support for the man. Dipping a toe in the extremist water, our Web site owner publishes the occasional strong defense of Trump on some controversial issue where Big Media has declared Trump out of bounds — and finds the clicks, and the revenue, and the kudos, all come rolling in. As he publishes more and more extreme and laughable defenses, the polarized groups deliver more clicks, and audience capture causes the content to become even more radical and crazy.

And this is how the President and his supporters can spread a big lie that the election was stolen, and convince people to march on the Capitol, break numerous federal laws, and kill a police officer — all in the name of a narrative unsupported by actual evidence.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it needs to stop.

My basic thesis is this: now, more than ever, we need people who don’t alter what they believe and what they say based on what they think will please their audience. If I can’t find a way to alienate a good chunk of you in every newsletter, I’m not doing my job.

I promise you that I will say only what I actually think. And I promise you that it will probably upset you at some point. That’s actually a good thing.

If you made it this far without unsubscribing, feel free to forward this to a friend who might be interested. Feel free to send me feedback at patterico.com, or my Twitter account @patterico, or my email patterico@gmail.com. Thanks for reading.