Talking politics: The surprising consequences of innocent conversation

In an era of worries over fake news, who can be trusted? Taylor Carlson studies the effects of interpersonal political communication, especially on social media.

We all do it, but we all supposedly hate it: talking politics. We are now less comfortable discussing politics than even religion, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. As we move into the year of the presidential election, this influx of information is only going to increase; if prior election years are any indication, there will be plenty of bias (on both sides) interspersed with true content. Worse, recent worries over fake news – false information deliberately masqueraded as news – marks this year as one to be particularly careful. So, should people close their ears? Who can be trusted, and how do we make that decision?

Taylor Carlson

Taylor Carlson, an assistant professor of political science, studies the effects of interpersonal political communication, especially as it might be shared on social media. Her work simulates real-world scenarios as a ‘game of telephone’ to see how information changes as it works its way down the grapevine. In one recent study, after reading an article about the 2016 presidential candidates, Carlson had participants write a synopsis of what they had learned as if they were going to share it with someone close. These summaries were then shared with other participants, who in turn wrote another synopsis for someone else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that the amount of included information declines as it progresses from person to person. Importantly, however, the content of what was communicated also became increasingly more biased, in line with the participants’ political affiliations.

“The internet has amplified the speed with which information can change, and the number of people it reaches; we know that people have been gossiping and spreading rumors since the beginning of time,” Carlson emphasized. It is not as if, pre-internet, people didn’t have to worry about fake news or other, less deliberate forms of misinformation. But now the concern is that people can become misinformed with such speed that the truth may not have time to make it to the light.

It is worth noting that not all misinformation is as glaringly false as fake news, and Carlson’s work supports this intuition. In her study, as information passed through the chain, content was distorted, but people almost never introduced blatant falsehoods. Instead, they were far more likely to inadequately represent data or add pieces that were never mentioned. Accordingly, our close relations are unlikely to mislead us intentionally, but they’re also unlikely to convey the whole picture.

What can concerned, politically conscientious people can do to stay safely informed? “Don’t take anything at face value, and really think about it for a minute,” said Carlson. “Be skeptical and think critically if something sounds fishy to you. Students here at WashU are really smart, and should be fully capable of doing this research and trying to dig deeper.” 

Her other caution, however, is not to take this idea too far by becoming distrustful of everything you hear. Ideally, a balance must be struck between an appropriate level of skepticism and maintaining the desire to stay well-informed. The challenge is detecting the biases of sources – whether that be a friend or a news network – and factoring that into your judgment. “We're trying to use our peers as a good information shortcut, but we need to remember that they could be giving us information biased toward their preferences.”

Such concerns, especially with fake news, have opened discussions about censorship and what role organizations will take in limiting the flow of information. Carlson raised some of these difficult questions, considering especially the biases of those passing verdict on what is allowable and what isn’t. For example, should powerful entities like the government or large corporations be permitted to restrict political communication? At what point is the line crossed between benevolence and dogmatism? 

Only time will tell how social media platforms and other organizations will address this epistemic hurdle – Twitter, for one, recently banned political ads, with Facebook declining to do so – but Carlson is more intrigued than worried. “These platforms face big challenges in trying to balance censorship with wanting to provide accurate information, and I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”