Pope Francis on How to Stay Sane on Facebook

(Bloomberg) For the 48th World Communications Day, Pope Francis produced a remarkable (and mostly enthusiastic) message about the effects of social media. He contended that the Internet is “something truly good, a gift from God.”

At the same time, he warned that the “variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.”

For that reason, Pope Francis observed, the new world of communications “can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings.”

In what sense can the variety of opinions make us “lose our bearings”? The pope was referring to the use of new technologies to create echo chambers, in which people take advantage of the countless options to confirm their pre-existing convictions. Thus he warned of a situation in which we become “closed in on ourselves.”

With respect to the harmful effects of barricades, the pope’s concern has strong empirical justifications. When people listen only to views that confirm their own ideas, they don’t merely maintain those ideas; they tend to get more extreme. If, for example, people are opposed to same-sex relationships, or believe that affirmative action is a good idea, they become more confident, more unified and more extreme as a result of listening and talking to one another.

In recent years, there has been a lot of debate about whether self-segregation is occurring. Seth Flaxman and his co-authors at Microsoft Research recently offered the most comprehensive evidence to date, and they demonstrate that Pope Francis’s warning is warranted. They find that many people who read partisan articles regularly “are almost exclusively exposed to only one side of the political spectrum,” and to that extent tend to exist in something very much like an echo chamber.

The study involved the Web-browsing histories of 1.2 million U.S.-located users over three months in 2013, with a total of 2.3 billion page views. One finding is that there is a high degree of ideological segregation when users share opinion pieces on social media (perhaps because of ideological similarity among people’s social contacts). When such sharing occurs, people show a tendency to restrict themselves to points of view that fit with their existing beliefs. [more]