Don't Blame the Internet for Political Polarization
New Media a Force for Democratization, Not Subjugation
Once a site of utopian projections, the Internet is now a target of our anxieties about the contaminating influence of technology and external authority. Nobody will bother to remember anything important, we worry, since it’s all on Wikipedia anyway. A chorus warns that we have fallen in love with our gadgets, can’t tell our Facebook friends from our real ones, and can’t focus on anything longer than 140 characters. Deluged with too much information, we are paralyzed rather than empowered when it comes to making decisions.
Progressives in particular have worried about the effect of the Internet on democracy. In his 2001 Republic.com legal scholar Cass Sunstein warned that the increasing ability of people to choose what information they wish to pay attention to, radically facilitated by the Internet’s promise of personalization, would result in people being increasingly exposed only to ideas that confirm their beliefs, exacerbating group polarization and creating a deeply fragmented society.
A decade later, in early 2011, Evgeny Morozov criticized the “cyber-utopians” who believe that the Internet is an unqualified force for liberation in undemocratic countries, pointing to the Iranian dictatorship’s use of Facebook and Twitter to identify and arrest pro-democracy protesters, and authoritarian regimes around the world that disseminate propaganda online. “If anything,” he writes in The Net Delusion, “Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor, a world where technology could be harvested to spread democracy around the globe rather than entrench existing autocracies.” Morozov worries further about the “Kremlin’s growing entertainment empire,” with its highly produced shows about Moscow’s nightlife and other frivolous pursuits that distract Russia’s youth from political activity. With the masses “happy to comply,” there is no need for the heavy hand of Soviet-style censorship. “The most effective system of Internet control is not the one that has the most sophisticated and draconian system of censorship, but the one that has no need for censorship whatsoever,” Morozov writes. “What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?”
Later that same year, Eli Pariser, the former president of the progressive online advocacy organization MoveOn, published The Filter Bubble, which warned about the antidemocratic potential of Internet personalization. The Internet was supposed to be a kind of town hall on steroids, connecting us to all different kinds of people and empowering us to act collectively. But instead, Pariser argues, Internet giants like Facebook and Google are harvesting our personal data for financial gain and dividing the virtual world into information silos in the process. The result is that we see more of what we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see — namely, viewpoints that differ from our own. “Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles,” he writes. Rather than being in dialogue with our fellow citizens, we talk to ourselves and others like us, and become more extreme and less willing to compromise.
Unfortunately for Pariser and Morozov, just as their books were going to press, Arab Spring protests — fueled as much by Facebook as by Al-Jazeera — swept over the Arab world, bringing new evidence of the democratizing potential of social media and even TV.
As it turns out, contemporary liberal anxieties about the Internet are strikingly similar to those raised around the media of antiquity. Writing things down, Socrates warned, would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” One Dominican friar famously urged Venice to ban the printing press, arguing that “the pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore,” and in 1565, the Swiss scientist Conrad Gesner complained that the printing press had unleashed an information overload that was “confusing and harmful” to the mind.1 As Vaughan Bell pointed out recently in Slate, eighteenth century politicians cautioned that if the public got their information from newspapers rather than ministers they would be deprived of spiritual uplift and become socially isolated.
By the early twentieth century, the ostensible concerns with new media had flipped; instead of elites worrying about new media threatening their grip on information pipelines, now it was antiauthoritarian intellectuals warning of mass media’s antidemocratic effects. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer named magazines, film, and radio part of the evocative “culture industry,” reducing the entirety of new media technologies to the profit motive — a meme embraced by the New Left. Adorno and Horkheimer framed new media as authoritarian for being unidirectional; those on the listening end of radio, for example, are denied the opportunity to engage in dialogue, and made passive as a result. The former advertising man Jerry Mander leveled an identical criticism in his 1978 Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, arguing that the medium undermined free thought and democracy. In the case of both radio and television, experts warned that youth were being corrupted and, just as worrisome, distracted from doing their homework.
With the benefit of hindsight, these concerns seem grossly misplaced. Each new form of mass media started as a tool of elites but over time had a massively democratizing effect. The wisdom of Socrates and other intellectuals has spread by text, not word of mouth. The printing press was created to produce bibles but was used shortly after to print atheist tracts. Newspapers bypassed traditional religious and political authorities, and were critical to the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Commercial TV was essential to the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties and to the Arab Spring of late. If new media undermine old communities they also support new ones. To the extent the mass media have been corrupting, they have been more corrupting of traditional religious and political authority than of democracy.
All media, from newspapers to the Internet, both stabilize and disrupt regimes of power and thought, but the clear trajectory of impact is toward democratization and individuation. One need not reduce the panoply of causes of the Arab Spring to Al Jazeera and Facebook, or suggest that those societies are now free, to simply acknowledge their clear utility to the ongoing democratization of Arab nations. Similarly, the Internet has disrupted not only traditional media industries, with newspapers particularly hard hit, but also commercial marketing more broadly. Before the Internet, there were only a handful of media outlets; today, there is a vast proliferation of outlets with diverse viewpoints, available in almost any language, for free, with the click of a mouse.
With the rise of social media, news has gone from being unidirectional to multidirectional — the very thing Adorno and Horkheimer suggested democracy required. Personalization makes it easier for advertisers to target consumers with products they think they’ll want, but it also makes it harder for companies to mass market, which Adorno and Horkheimer feared would turn us all into homogenous consumers. And there are obvious improvements in the quality of commerce. Is there any consumer anywhere who prefers mass market to tailored advertising?
The Internet may not be the great liberator, as some web evangelists claim, but there is scant evidence that the Internet is undermining political discourse or driving today’s polarization. Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business conducted a study2 that compared ideological segregation in news consumption online and off. They found that ideological segregation in online news is low overall, and no evidence that it is increasing over time. Others, at the University of Indiana, recently released a study3 of political tweets leading up to the 2010 midterm election and found that while most people retweeted ideologically conformist information, people who used both liberal and conservative hashtags were mentioned more often. “Users contributing to a politically balanced combination of content streams on average receive and produce more interideological communication than those who use mostly partisan hashtags,” the study found.
The economics of news production is another strike against the idea that the Internet is an echo chamber where people only get information that reinforces their worldview. The Internet may allow people to easily filter the news, but the most widely viewed news outlets are still unlikely to shift very far to the left or the right. That’s because most people, as the Chicago study noted, prefer news stories that are “timely, well written, entertaining, and do not omit or explicitly misreport important facts.” The pressure to maintain a large audience prevents mainstream news outlets from becoming too extreme. And despite the proliferation of small, extremist news sites, large moderate giants like Yahoo! News and cnn.com are still far more widely read.
The University of Chicago researchers found that ideological segregation is marginally higher in online news consumption than in off, but it’s significantly lower than in face-to-face interactions with family, friends, and coworkers. This last finding suggests that the echo chamber effect is probably more of a problem offline than on, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Alternative perspectives can be difficult to find among the groups we associate with on a daily basis, but online, a curious liberal can easily click over to Power Line or Fox News. And that’s just what the study found — those who were likely to visit the most extreme political sites were also likely to visit moderate sites and sites on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
To the degree that the Internet and new media are making polarization worse, they would appear to be exacerbating trends that were already longstanding. Polarization among voters has been rising since the mid–1950s, slowly at first and more dramatically since the late 1970s. The dramatic realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties in the post–Civil Rights era, with Southern Democrats switching parties en masse, pushed the Republican Party much further to the right. Demographic trends have further accelerated the transformation of the two major parties into distinctly more ideological entities over the ensuing decades, particularly among the highly educated and politically engaged elites who survey data suggest tend to be the most partisan.
Rising affluence and prosperity gave Americans the mobility to live among the like-minded. Liberals moved to urban cultural and creative centers like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and Boston, and conservatives to Christian communities like Colorado Springs and Orange County. In The Big Sort, journalist-demographer Bill Bishop notes that this “self-sorting” became a far more important driver of polarization than the kinds of district gerrymandering done in the twentieth century.
The halcyon era of low polarization and consistent bipartisanship from the 1940s to the early 1970s was an era dominated by the postwar liberal consensus, an era in which the mainstream of both parties supported the expansion of the social welfare state and were moderately liberal, anticommunist, and, eventually, even supportive of Civil Rights legislation. It was a period during which even Richard Nixon would describe himself as a Keynesian. With the benefit of hindsight, that period may appear to have been the exception in the American political experience, not the rule.
The dramatic rise in the polarization of the American electorate roughly corresponds with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has only continued in the decades that followed, as an increasingly conservative Republican Party has contested the liberal welfare state and many other political questions that had seemed largely settled during the prior era. It should little surprise us that conservatives have exhibited much less heartburn over the nation’s rising political polarization than have liberals.
But while the rise of polarization can be traced back in significant part to the rise of an assertive and unapologetic political conservatism in the ’70s and ’80s, liberals were not simply along for the ride. The scorched earth campaigns that have increasingly characterized American politics began, by most accounts, with President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. In contrast to earlier Republican nominees to the court, who as often as not proved to be every bit as liberal jurisprudentially as their fellow Democratic nominees, Bork was an unapologetic conservative and a strict legal constructionist, a position that was firmly outside the liberal legal mainstream of the time. Liberal groups were outraged and organized a massive campaign to defeat the nomination. “We’re going to bork him,” Florynce Kennedy said at the National Organization for Women conference. “We’re going to kill him politically.” Senator Edward Kennedy led the charge, claiming that “Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution…” and so on. Bork later claimed that “there was not a line in that speech that was accurate,” but with the Reagan White House caught off guard by the ferocity of the anti-Bork movement, liberals succeeded in killing his nomination. Four years later, the Clarence Thomas nomination would provoke a similar firestorm.
That the original “high-tech lynching” — the term Justice Thomas gave to the Anita Hill controversy during his confirmation hearings — happened before the Internet revolution had even begun ought to temper our impulse to blame the new digital media for America’s growing political divide.
Arguably, the most obvious way in which the Internet has contributed to polarization has been to accelerate the shift of power in American politics away from party elites and toward partisan regulars. But, as with other trends that the new media and tools of recent decades have helped exacerbate, the roots of this shift long predate the invention of the Internet. Where parties once chose their candidates in smoke-filled back rooms, through negotiations among party elites that were arguably driven more by regional and financial interests associated with the parties than by ideological considerations, the wholesale shift by both parties to binding primaries after the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention dramatically shifted power to rank-and-file partisans.
The result was almost immediately apparent. Democrats nominated the left-leaning George McGovern in 1972. Republicans very nearly chose the insurgent Ronald Reagan over a sitting, if unelected, President Ford in 1976 and handed Reagan the nomination outright in 1980. Binding primaries not only resulted in more-ideological candidates but also in more-ideological party platforms and agendas. Ideologically motivated partisans were increasingly able to seize control of both parties’ political apparatuses, shifting each significantly to the Left and Right respectively.
The Internet has only accelerated these processes, allowing partisans to organize and mobilize resources with greater efficacy outside of official party processes, and then to bring them to bear to great effect upon those processes — fueling primary challenges to candidates deemed insufficiently doctrinaire, platform battles over issues like abortion and gay marriage, and campaigns for candidates like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich far outside the mainstream of either party.
And while these dynamics have helped fuel the ideological polarization that has swept across American politics, they have not been driven either by corporate manipulation of the Internet nor by party or corporate elites. Rather, as with virtually all new media forms that came before it, the Internet, for better and worse, has been a democratizing force in American politics, putting the parties, their nominees, and their platforms in the hands of their rank-and-file members, often over the strenuous objections of party leadership.
In this way, the Internet has been an enabling technology, allowing other forces, which have been at work for decades, to more fully reshape the ideological landscape of American politics and partisanship. Like earlier media technologies and innovations, the Internet is undoubtedly helping to shape the evolving nature of American democracy and society. But if the Internet is at times an echo chamber, allowing both the liberal netroots and the Tea Party to alternately ignore one another and turn their ideological doppelgangers into monsters, it is arguably better understood as a mirror, reflecting and magnifying the growing narcissism of American life.
As Americans have become more affluent and educated, we have become ever more self-involved and self-referential. Identity politics, defined broadly, was never limited to the American Left, but has transformed American politics across the board. With rising individualization, Americans of all political stripes increasingly place their personal identities and experiences at the center of their politics. To be an evangelical or an environmentalist, a libertarian or a progressive, is to put a particular set of ideas about oneself at the center of one’s politics — “I’m a defender of the planet.” “I’m a defender of freedom and economic opportunity.” “I’m an advocate for the poor.” The result is that compromising with the political other becomes indistinguishable from compromising something core about ourselves. At the same time, we become more prone to project our own values and worldviews onto others. We have a harder time understanding where we stop and where the world around us begins.
In both of these ways, the “filter bubble” that really matters is not the one online, but the one between our ears. It is a delicious irony that Pariser became concerned about how corporations were manipulating his searches and social media when he befriended a number of conservatives on Facebook and discovered that their updates were not showing up in his news feed. This anecdote serves as Exhibit A in his case that corporations are preventing us from exposing ourselves to alternate viewpoints and disconfirmatory news.
But if Pariser’s curiosity about the viewpoints of his conservative Facebook friends was laudable, it apparently didn’t last long. It turns out that the reason Facebook’s algorithm stopped showing Pariser updates from his conservative friends was that he rarely clicked on them. As the head of a prominent liberal campaign organization, maybe he was simply too busy and didn’t have time. Or perhaps Pariser’s real beef with Facebook was not that he wasn’t seeing status updates from his conservative friends but rather that they might not be seeing updates from him.
Either way, it is a problem that we are unlikely to solve by turning off the cookies on our browsers. What might help, though, is if we all made a practice of occasionally clicking over to see what our conservative friends actually had to say.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons (left); Clickherethebook.com (right)
1. Blair, Ann. 2003. “Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 No. 1:11-28.
2. Gentzkow, Matthew Aaron and Shapiro, Jesse M., Ideological Segregation Online and Offline (April 13, 2010). Chicago Booth Initiative on Global Markets Working Paper No. 55.. Available at: http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/jesse.shapiro/research/echo_chambers.pdf.
3. M. D. Conover, J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Goncalves, A. Flammini, F. Menczer, “Political Polarization on Twitter,” Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, 2011, http://truthy.indiana.edu/site_media/pdfs/conover_icwsm2011_polarization.pdf.