How did Trump win? (or, the bias of our political information)


(cross-posted on Medium)

Trump broke the mould which makes it difficult for political scientists and strategists alike to understand the dynamics of his win. But conveniently, when we say “how did he win?” we actually mean, “how did I miss this?” This is a question we are much better equipped to answer.

tl;dr: You missed the whole “Trump is actually popular” thing because you prefer not to see a world where he is. And, your social media is helping you do it.

(A quick note on evidence, I am linking to various academic sources where you can find more about the theories and arguments I am summarizing. These are a starting point. Feel free to leave a comment with additional sources.)

Preferences and Personal Choice

There is a lot of information out there and not a lot of time in the day to access it all. We humans have to choose what we pay attention to and what we ignore. We prefer things that feel comfortable, that fit with our existing ideas about the world and that reassure us that we are on the right track. If we like news we seek out more of it, if we don’t we binge Netflix (among other things).

Source: There are a bunch of people from psychology to media studies arguing these points, Prior’s work is a good place to start.

Homophily, When Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Not only do we like information and ideas that already fit into our belief system, we also like people who are similar to us. We tend to spend more time with people from a similar background, who work in the same kinds of jobs and who have a similar socio-economic status. The term to describe this phenomenon is homophily and we see it everywhere from who we hang out with on the weekends to who we chat with on Twitter. So, even when we care about politics we tend to only be exposed to people similar to us and ideas similar to our own.

Source: McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook do a great job of outlining homophily.

The Spiral of Silence

Even when we do find our way into communities and conversations that take a view that is different from our own, we usually do not decide to contribute. When we believe the dominant view is different from our own we normally avoid giving our opinions for fear of social repercussions. This was observed in a mass media era and more recently in the context of social media and online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Trump supporters just aren’t going to out themselves to communities of people enthusiastically saying #ImWithHer.

Source: Noelle-Neumann initially described the Spiral of Silence which became a fundamental theory in media studies research. Hampton and colleagues at the Pew Research Centre tested the theory in the context of social media.

Opinion Leaders, That Super Engaged Friend

To make matters worse, we normally get a lot of our political information from friends and family and our political opinions are often formed, at least in part, through discussion with people we personally trust. We call these people opinion leaders and they are normally people who are very similar to us but who happen to be a little more interested in political news. This process was first called the two-step flow.

As if it were not enough to be getting information from people who are primarily just like us, these opinion leaders are also making strategic use of their channels of communication in order to avoid social conflict. If we are worried we might make our friends angry we are less likely to post political content to Facebook. This leads people to self-censor.

Source: The two-step flow was first articulated by Katz and Lazarsfeld, here is a good breakdown of that early theory. It has been modified and questioned a bunch over the years but the notion of the opinion leader being a crucial player (see Norris and Curtice, for example). Finally, my own doctoral work focused on the self-censorship on social media aspect.


But before we even get to the point of picking content we prefer or hearing about issues from friends based on what they think we will prefer, the mainstream media play a crucial role. For example, the mainstream media (where most of us get the majority of our political news) picks which stories to report on and what angle to present. They both filter information (serving as a gatekeeper) and tell us what to think about (serving an agenda-setting function). Even when we read news from respected media sources we get a particular perspective — one we selected based on things like our existing preferences, what we have come in contact with before, and what our friends consult and trust.

Sources: Both gatekeeping theory and agenda-setting theory are fundamental notions in political communication, media studies and journalism research. There are many books and articles but I actually think their respective Wikipedia articles are the best place to start.

Filter Bubbles and Algorithms

Last but certainly not least, most of us get some if not the majority of our political information through social media and online search. The problem is, Facebook and Google are designed to give us more of what we want and less of what we are likely to find annoying, boring, threatening, etc. We see more from people who’s posts we have recently “liked,” and news websites from our local area get pushed to the top of search results. Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderful features in many ways but it does mean that we can end up in personalized little bubbles. We end up being served more of what we already “like” and “share” and that can make us think our preferences are actually everyone’s preferences.

Source: Pariser describes the filter bubble in his book and this TED talk.

So, quick summary:

You missed the whole “Trump is actually popular” thing because you prefer not to see a world where he is. And, your social media is helping you do it. You prefer a certain amount and certain kind of news that means you were exposed to things that confirm your existing beliefs and preferences about the election (#ImWithHer #WhoWouldntBe #Duh). Most of the people around you are just like you and so you reinforce each other’s views (you nasty woman, you) and inadvertently, or maybe intentionally, push away anyone who disagrees. Even your super engaged political friends who are more likely to be exposed to lots of different views (because they go out of their way to find them since they prefer it that way) are unlikely to share divergent opinions and likely self-censored this election in certain contexts. News media are filtering information based on what they think is most relevant to society and Facebook and Google are filtering information based on what they think is most relevant to you.

We’ve got all kinds of layers helping us sift through the masses of information out there and that is not only inevitable but also useful. The trick is we need to be careful about how we use them or, you know, let them become so ubiquitous we don’t even know they are being used.


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