Political Echo Chambers

Targeted political marketing can lead to group polarization and echo chambers.

Posted Mar 04, 2021

New marketing techniques allow businesses to target likely consumers. Social media provides data tracking of consumers that gives businesses the chance to market to those who are most likely to purchase their product or use their services. The ethical implications of this level of insight into people’s behavior are debatable, but this type of marketing is here to stay. As a consumer, it can allow you to be introduced to products and services that are the most useful and desirable to you as an individual, which can be great. Marketers get their clients in front of audiences that maximize their return on investment in the marketing services, and it can often be a win-win-win situation (consumers, businesses, and marketers).

This is also how political campaigns operate. They seek to maximize their critical resources and target their messages to those who have supported or registered for their party before and are most likely to do so again in the future. The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee both send lists of area supporters to their campaigns. The campaigns use these lists to send automated phone calls, e-mails, and printed flyers. Some states allow open primaries and some do not, where anyone can vote on who will be a party’s nominee. But even in the general elections there is often not much crossing over to send messages to names on the other party’s list. The focus is generally on rallying the base. This creates a situation where registered Republicans are mostly exposed to the Republican candidate and registered Democrats are mostly exposed to the Democratic candidates.

As we know, liberals and conservatives use different moral foundations through which to evaluate information and make decisions (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Graham et al., 2011; Haidt, 2012; Koleva et al., 2012; Mather, 2020). For liberals, the moral foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are key, while conservatives use those two as well as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Messaging can be tailored to fit those moral foundation profiles (Mather, 2017; 2018; 2020) as well as tailored to more and less analytical styles (central versus peripheral route to persuasion; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). 

Additionally, these tactics play on the most basic human instincts of ingroup and outgroup distinctions (Mather, 2013; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). From a candidate’s perspective, rallying the base means rallying people who think like I do (ingroup) rather than trying to persuade those who do not (outgroup). Ultimately this leads to group polarization, where groups become more extreme and the moderates both within and between the two parties (in our two-party system) are left out of the discussion.

Unfortunately, in local elections there is no incentive for someone to break this cycle. A campaign, with minimal resources, must do what is necessary (within the rules) to maximize their candidate’s voter turnout. That means there are no extra resources to try to swing independents or moderates of the other party. I’m not calling for any reform, I am just stating the way it all currently works. That means to break the cycle, voters must venture past campaign-created echo chambers, move from the peripheral route of persuasion into the central route, and critically analyze each candidate themselves. The voters have a responsibility in this persuasion dynamic.

References

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029-1046.

Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 366-385.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Panthenon.

Koleva, S. P., Graham, J., Iyer, R., Ditto, P. H., & Haidt, J. (2012). Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 184-194.

Mather, R. D. (2013). When “Me-Other” becomes “We-They”: The material effects of the social identity illusion. [Review of Social identity in question: Construction, subjectivity, and critique.]. PsycCritiques, 58(22).

Mather, R. D. (2017, May 22). A message with broad appeal: An analysis of President Trump’s speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit. Psychology Today (online).

Mather, R, D. (2018, January 31). State of the Union 2018: Well done, Mr. President. Psychology Today (online).

Mather, R. D. (2020, August 28). The moral foundations of President Trump’s RNC Speech. Psychology Today (online).

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T., (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.