A recent study in the United States suggests that the phenomenon described as ‘The Daily Me‘ can also apply to groups of people who hold a particular point of view.
‘The Daily Me’ is a term used to describe the risks attached to personalized news services. In everyday terms, a newspaper or online news aggregator tailored to the personal tastes of a person on a given day will lead to too much positive feedback in that direction, in other words, the person’s existing outlook and views would be re-inforced by their choice of reading. The Daily Me theory postulates that, in the absence of exposure to viewpoints that are not in line with their own, the person is actually likely to become more extreme in their viewpoint on a particular issue.
A recent edition of UK Financial newspaper The Financial Times reported on a 2005 study in the United States suggests that the theory is true, not in individuals as might be expected, but in groups. The article reports that, as part of the study:
“About 60 US citizens were put into 10 groups. They deliberated on controversial issues, such as whether the US should sign an inter-national treaty to combat global warming and whether states should allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. The groups consisted of predominantly either leftwing or rightwing members. The groups, not mixed, were screened to ensure members conformed to stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously before and after the group discussion.”
The study found that, in almost every group, people ended up with more extreme positions. The largely leftwing groups favoured an inter-national treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favoured it far more strongly afterwards. In the rightwing group, people were neutral on that treaty before discussion; discussion led them to oppose it strongly. Same-sex unions became much more popular in the leftwing group and less so in the rightwing group.
The Financial Times report continued:
“Aside from increasing extremism, discussion had another effect: it squelched diversity. Before members talked, many groups displayed internal disagreement. These were greatly reduced: discussion widened the rift.”
Three reasons are given for the findings. First is the exchange of information. The members of the predominantly rightwing group offered many justifications for not signing a climate treaty and a lot fewer for doing so. Since people listened to one another, they became more sceptical.
The second reason given is that when people find their views corroborated, they become more confident and so are more willing to be extreme.
The third reason involves social comparison. People who favour a position think of themselves in a certain way and if they are with people who agree with them, they shift slightly to hold on to their preferred self-conception.
The full Financial Times article, which suggests that this trend holds significant challenges for democracy, can be read here. The article was written by Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago in the United States, who analyzed the implications of the Daily Me in his book, Republic.com.
My personal view is that the most effective way of combatting the risk of the ‘Daily Me’ phenomenon is that any medium used to disseminate personalized news should have a ‘window’ through which the reader can easily access alternative viewpoints on the topic under discussion, especially where it is the subject of conflicting views. In the case of online news aggregators, this could consist of a small sub-section of the page which could be called the ‘counterpoint window’ or some similar term to identify it as the source of viewpoints likely to be at odds with the reader’s own. In a printed publication which is personalized, the corresponding outlet would be a ‘counterpoint page’.
In the case of groups, however, penetrating the shared viewpoint is more difficult – the viewpoint is likely to be what brought the group together in the first place. It is far more difficult for the alternative viewpoint to penetrate the shared group outlook. Maybe the solution is to actually encourage the growth of personalized news aggregation coupled with the counterpoint window, so that the individuals who join the group have a better chance of being exposed to the alternative viewpoint beforehand. They may still hold to their chosen view, but they at least would know why the opposing side thinks the way it does.