In 2011 Eli Pariser gave a TED talk about the potential dangers of the internet creating “filter bubbles”, i.e. companies like Google and Facebook tailoring their content to our interests and thus preventing us to see the whole reality. People, therefore, — goes his logic — can be more easily manipulated by propaganda. Subsequent studies have not shown any evidence that such filter bubbles are real.
Why did Pariser’s idea make such a huge splash, in the first place? Well, we are all afraid of being manipulated to a certain extent and the idea itself seemed intuitively correct. The truth is, that people have been creating such filter bubbles for themselves for ages. It’s a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” — people tend to look for information that confirms their beliefs. They also tend to befriend people with similar beliefs.
The truth is, we aren’t really that much manipulated by the media (people usually chose them according to their ideology), nor by populists. They can only “awaken” inclinations people already have inherently. No populist can persuade me that immigrants are bad for the economy (as a rule economies benefit from them, but people with xenophobia will love to buy into this idea) nor that we shouldn’t grant asylum to refugees in need (that is an untouchable human right for me).
The majority of people actually vote considering a lot of information, in the first place. We think we vote for the most competent candidate, but our vote is mostly irrational. I generally tend to vote for the liberal party in my country. Five years ago, a conservative-right wing government was elected with a big majority. The government was anti-refugee and middle-upper class. I benefited from the election outcome, even though I would have preferred a more social (pro lower class) government, which would have actually been against my own financial interests. On the flip side, a lot of people who earn much less money than I voted for the government because they promised to get rid of the refugees — against their own financial interests. These voters hardly calculated the impact on their own finances when casting their votes.
According to psychologist Alexander Todorov, the number one decisive factor for voting is a candidate’s face . We elect a person on the grounds how likeable we find him or her. Sounds horribly irrational and superficial, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not. I have argued before that people have inherited their personality based on the subsistence economy: farming (usual conservatives), hunting-gathering (frequently liberal) and herding (can be anywhere on the political spectrum including far-right). We often choose our friends and partners (assortative mating) from our own “tribe” and it might well be that our faces reveal subtle clues as to which tribe we belong.
Whether this hunch is true or not, you will often find people voting against their rational interests. Silicon Valley was almost entirely against Donald Trump, despite his business-friendly ideology. How come? A vast majority of people who live in Silicon Valley have hunter-gatherer minds: visionary start-up founders like Larry Page and the armies of coders and engineers who work for them. Pro-Trump voters are the exception in Silicon Valley, and those who usually have farmer-herder minds, Peter Thiel and Larry Ellison, among them. In fact, Larry Ellison got into trouble with his hunter-gatherer mind Oracle employees, who stopped working in protest of Ellison’s fundraising campaign for Trump.
Bottom line: people tend to vote in line with their evolved personality type rather than completely rationally. Someone who has a hunter-gatherer mind will find it almost impossible to vote for a person like Trump, who doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “egalitarian” — judging from the way he treats his employees, women and refugees.