Arguing with Strangers on the Internet

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 (Bild: Pixabay © CC0)

(Bild: Pixabay © CC0)

Motivated by the goal of reducing the polarization of opinions online, new EPFL/UNIL research indicates that this may be far more difficult than expected, even when using liked or respected celebrities as spokespeople.

Celebrities, thanks to their level of fame, are often considered to be influential and many have used their status to campaign for issues they believe to be important - consider Beyoncé’s feminist activism or Leonardo DiCaprio’s outspokenness on Climate Change. With this perceived influence, governments around the world regularly try to enlist celebrities as spokespeople in information campaigns, including in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to raise awareness for social distancing or to support vaccination efforts.

But new EPFL/UNIL research has found that enlisting celebrities to change or influence people’s opinions might actually be counterproductive, and instead make an audience less empathetic towards the celebrity spokesperson.

Researchers from the Data Science Lab (dlab) in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences  at  EPFL , with colleagues from the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Psychology,  performed a randomized controlled trial with crowd workers to measure whether their perspectives on a selection of topics such as immigration, vaccination, climate change and abortion changed after messages from celebrity spokespeople who they liked, disliked, agreed or disagreed with, as well as a dissenting opinion from an expert who was unknown to them.

Why would I care what you think?

"In contrast to what we were expecting, a celebrity who had an opposing perspective was entirely unsuccessful in changing the respondents’ previously held opinion. Even more interesting, an agreeing opinion voiced by a disliked celebrity seemed to also result in a further entrenchment of prior beliefs. Overall, our findings appear consistent with people’s tendency to surround themselves with those with whom they agree in order to receive validation," said Head of the Data Science Lab, Assistant Professor Robert West.

The researchers found a similar fortification effect with expert spokespeople, with respondents becoming further entrenched in their own opinion. The study showed that disagreement by an expert had a worse effect than disagreement by a disliked spokesperson, putting into question the perceived ability of experts to influence in such situations.

I like my opinion, so I won’t like you

"From the results, it is clear that the recommendation to not argue with strangers on the Web doesn’t go quite far enough. Disagreement in any form seems unlikely to facilitate even the slightest change in opinion for the better, and often reinforces existing beliefs. As well, a celebrity spokesperson who attempts to change public opinion might lose followers as a result, or a regular user of the Web might lose friends on social media. For scientific experts, our findings are a clear indication to tread carefully in communicating scientific findings about loaded and polarizing topics, said EPFL Post Doctoral Researcher, Andreas Spitz and co-author of the study.

In early 2020, COVID-19 gave the researchers the perfect opportunity to conduct a second experiment in a crisis situation at a time when most of the world’s governments were working on political responses to the pandemic. They focused on the public response to social distancing recommendations in six countries - Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States, randomly attributing a call to practice social distancing in a social media advertising campaign to a celebrity, a local government official, or the immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci as an expert spokesperson.

In contrast to the results in a non-crisis situation, the study found the expert to be most effective in increasing the redistribution of the message across all demographic groups, whereas celebrities remained ineffective. The researchers hypothesis to explain this difference in reaction is the increased desire for guidance in crisis situations.

Know your audience

The results highlight the importance of carefully selecting spokespeople for information campaigns as, across all demographic groups, respondents were more likely to heed the advice of any liked spokesperson than the advice of a disliked spokesperson, or a "faceless" message without attribution. So, while celebrities tend to have sway with their own audience, they should not be considered good candidates for large information campaigns that are aimed at the general public. For such campaigns, giving a stage and a voice to experts seems to be substantially more promising.

"At a time when many scientists shy away from the public spotlight , we see this as an important reminder of our responsibility. While the overall effect of spokesperson attribution to communicated information might resemble little more than a nudge, even small changes are likely to affect vast numbers of people on a societal scale in situations where a nudge is all that is needed to tip the scales," concluded co-author and Research Fellow at the University of Lausanne, Ahmad Abu-Akel.

A longer version of this article can be found here.


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