Why is the panic around echo chambers, filter bubbles, and fake news?

A report we just completed for the Quello Center on ‘Search and Politics‘ concluded that most people are not fooled by fake news, or trapped by filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, those interested in politics and with some ability in using the Internet and search, generally consult multiple sources for political information, and use search very often to check information they suspect to be wrong. It is a detailed report, so I hope you can read it to draw your own conclusions. But the responses I’ve received from readers are very appreciate of the report, yet then go on to suggest people remain in somewhat of a panic. Our findings have not assuaged their fears. 

Why?

First, these threats tied to the Internet and social media appeal to common fears about technology being out of control. Langdon Winner’s book comes to mind. This is an enduring theme of technology studies, and you can see it being played out in this area. And it is coupled with underestimating the role users actually play online. You really can’t fool most of Internet users most of the time, but most people worry that way too many are fooled.

This suggests that there might also be a role played by a third person effect, with many people believing that they themselves are not fooled by these threats, but that others are. I’m not fooled by fake news, for example, but others are. This may lead people to over-estimate the impact of these problems.

And, finally, there is a tendency for communication and technology scholars to believe that political conflicts can be solved simply by improving information and communication. I remember a quote from Ambassador Walter Annenberg at the Annenberg School, where I taught, to the effect that all problems can be solved by communication. However, many political conflicts result from real differences of opinions and interests, which will not be resolved by better communication. In fact, communication can sometimes clarify the deep differences and divisions that are at the heart of conflicts. So perhaps many of those focused on filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news are from the communication and the technical communities rather than political science, for example. If only technologies of communication could be improved, we would all agree on …  That is the myth.

More information about our Quello Center report is available in a short post by Michigan State University, and a short essay for The Conversation.

Joining Editorial Board of Internet Histories

Delighted to be joining the editorial board of an exciting new journal, Internet Histories: Digital Technology, Culture & Society.

You may have seen a special issue of Information & Culture that I helped edit and contributed to: Guest Editor: Haigh, T., Russell, A. and Dutton, W. H. (2015) (eds), ‘Histories of the Internet’, special issue for the journal Information & Culture, 50(2), May-June: 143-283. We were calling for more focus on exactly this area.

The editors note that “Internet Histories is an international, interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal concerned with research on the cultural, social, political and technological histories of the internet and associated digital cultures.

The journal embraces empirical as well as theoretical and methodological studies within the field of the history of the internet broadly conceived — from early computer networks, Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems, to everyday Internet with the web through the emergence of new forms of internet with mobile phones and tablet computers, social media, and the internet of things.

The journal will also provide the premier outlet for cutting-edge research in the closely related area of histories of digital techologies, cultures, and societies.

A hallmark of the journal is its desire to publish and catalyse research and scholarly debate on the development, forms, and histories of the internet internationally, across the full global range of countries, regions, cultures, and communities. You can read more about the journal here http://explore.tandfonline.com/page/ah/internet-histories.

Internet Histories will be published by Taylor & Francis 4 times per year (four digital issues, compiled in two print issues) commencing in early 2017.”

The editors of this new journal are: Professor Niels Brügger, School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University; Assistant Professor Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan; Professor Gerard Goggin, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney; and Dr Valérie Schafer, Institute for Communication Sciences, CNRS/Paris-Sorbonne/UPMC.

I hope you will consider submitting your best work around this topic to the journal.

 

 

The Study of Power Shifts Tied to Communication and Information Technologies

I finally completed an abstract for my talk at the forthcoming conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). It will be the 66th Annual Conference, this one to be held in Fukuoka, Japan, from 9-13 June 2016. The conference theme is ‘Communicating with Power’, so I chose to speak about my career long interest in the study of power shifts, most recently tied to my concept of  the Fifth Estate.  I was fascinated by the community power literature as a graduate student in political science, and began research on power shifts tied to computing and telecommunications in 1974 as a co-principal on a study of urban information systems. But over time, and across technologies, I’ve continued my focus on what Anthony Downs once argued to be the ‘real payoffs’ of information technology. My title and abstract for the ICA meeting are:

Communication Power Shifts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

William H. Dutton

“Innovations in communication and information technology have generated controversies over their political implications. From the printing press to the Internet, debate has revolved around Utopian versus dystopian – democratic versus autocratic biases, technologically deterministic versus socially shaped power shifts, and normative forecasts versus patterns that are inductively anchored in empirical research. This talk tracks the most prominent expectations tied to communication and technology, concluding with a focus on the rise of the Internet, and the communicative power it has provided to an emerging Fifth Estate, composed of networked individuals able to use the Internet strategically to hold institutions, and other estates and of the Internet realm more accountable.”

References

My first major publication on power shifts is my book with Jim Danziger, Rob Kling, and Ken Kraemer, entitled Computers and Politics (Columbia University Press, 1982).

Computers and Politics (1982)
Computers and Politics (1982)

Most of my work on the Fifth Estate is listed on http://quello.msu.edu/research/the-fifth-estate/