Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The United Methodist blogosphere, GC2019, polarization, and confirmation bias

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As the special called General Conference in February approaches, a crescendo of posts from across the United Methodist blogosphere have addressed the upcoming conference and the two main plans laid before it - the One Church Plan and the Traditional(ist) Plan. The focus on this issue in the United Methodist blogosphere is overwhelming, so much so that I sometimes wonder whether it is worthwhile to write about anything else in the next two months, or whether other conversations will necessarily be overlooked by those taking the clickbait of yet another post for or against one of the two plans.

Certainly, GC2019 is an important upcoming event, and the issues before it deserve serious consideration and discussion, on the internet as in person. However, the United Methodist blogosphere's focus on General Conference 2019 illustrates how the it reflects in many ways the general American media landscape, with its attendant problems of polarization and confirmation bias.

First, a brief description of what is out there in the United Methodist blogosphere. There are three types of United Methodist blogs: those sharing devotional materials, including sermon repostings; those sharing information about specific ministries; and those commenting on general church and cultural issues. In this analysis, I am referring to the third type of blog.

Most general church and culture blogs tend to have an easily identifiable theo-political slant to them - either conservative/traditionalist or liberal/progressive. That's not necessarily a bad thing - people are entitled to their views - but it does affect how blogs go about attracting an audience. Rather than attract readers who are interested in a particular topic (church-state relations, for instance), most general UM blogs attract readers who are interested in a particular viewpoint, regardless of the topic under discussion.

While religious types have a high tolerance for shouting in the wilderness, whether or not anyone is listening, most bloggers do still pay attention to what attracts readers. And when readers come to a blog for its viewpoint, usually what will attract the most readers are posts in which that viewpoint is expressed most strongly. In other words, polarized content is generally more popular content. Moreover, when that polarized view is applied to current hot topics, the page views increase further.

I think this is a major reason why many United Methodist generalist blogs have focused so heavily on GC2019 recently. It is certainly a hot topic, but it is also one which lends itself easily to polarized treatments. Thus, a polarized assessment of some aspect of GC2019 is more likely to be a "successful" post (in terms of page views) than one on, say, how the church should view the ethics of driverless cars (a current topic, but not a terribly hot one, and not a polarized one).

But there is a danger in this approach to content production in the United Methodist blogosphere. As current discussions of secular media in the United States have highlighted, a polarized media environment, especially when content is shared through social media, as most United Methodist blogs are, can fall victim to or even reinforce confirmation bias. In other words, when we seek out polarized media, and when media go along with incentives to produce more polarized content, that system seeks to strengthen people's existing biases and preconceived ideas about issues.

Thus, while much digital ink is being spilled debating the proposals for General Conference 2019, it is quite likely that both sides are overlooking strengths in their opponents' arguments and plans and weaknesses in their own, which could leave either or both unprepared for what actually happens. Moreover, it also means that all those words are making it less likely rather than more likely that opponents in the church will be able to work together in a spirit of prayer and charity to address our collective problems.

Here at UM & Global, we will try to avoid these problems of polarization and confirmation bias by continuing to produce non-polarized assessments of GC2019 and by focusing on other topics as well in the next two months. It may not earn us as many clicks, but I'd rather be less popular and not contribute (as much) to the problem than to go viral with content that will only further separate faithful Christians from one another.

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