There’s an argument going around, and it goes something like this: the internet is full of fake news and it’s making people politically polarised and killing democracy.
You’ve probably already heard some variation of this idea, especially if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum and feel slightly betrayed by the internet. After years of the internet age giving us cool lefty stuff like WikiLeaks, Snowden, the Arab Spring and Snozzles, suddenly it spat out Trump and his resurgent fascist movement. Who is to blame for this sudden turn of fortunes?
You are, apparently.
You and your social media tunnel vision, that is.
As Mostafa El-Bermawy over at Wired succinctly put it, “Your filter bubble is destroying democracy.”
“The internet that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and was used during Arab spring in 2011 is different from the internet that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump,” he argued.
He certainly has a point, though he’s far from alone in noting the impact of internet bubbles on social outlook.
“What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t,” Sean Blanda wrote.
In case you’re wondering, this is what your bubble looks like from the outside:
After watching that it’d be hard to disagree that today’s online filter bubble is polarising politics and killing democracy – but fuck it I’ll disagree.
Let’s start with this paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looked at political polarisation based on age group. The results were that political polarisation has indeed increased, specifically among voters aged 18 to 25, all of which are now certified hardline Marxists such as myself. Wait, sorry, turns out the most rapidly polarising age group is 75 and older. Yeah, that’s right: forget Antifa/nazi shitfights, because nursing homes are where the real action is at. Which is weird, because if you tried looking for someone who is immune to the polarising effects of social media, a nursing home would naturally seem like a good place to start. Clearly, the weirdness wasn’t lost on researchers, who glumly concluded, “These facts argue against the hypothesis that the internet is a primary driver of rising political polarisation.”
If social media isn’t making us more polarised, what is?
The researchers were above idle speculation, but I’m not, so here’s what I think is to blame: television. You do remember the item of technology I’m referring to, right? It’s that crapbox you haven’t switched on since the late 90s, but your gran just can’t get enough of for some reason. Old people are the only people who watch TV. And you know what’s on TV right now? Fox, that’s what. And who watches Fox? Your dirty racist grandparents, that’s who. And as an aside, what kind of people do you think are most susceptible to sharing the dreaded fake news? I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same kind of people who keep sending you Nigerian prince spam and chain emails proclaiming the evils of vaccines. In short: old people, plus their sidekicks: people who suck at the internet because they still watch TV and listen to talkback radio for some weird reason.
So clearly social media isn’t driving political obnoxiousness. I’d argue traditional media – from cable news to talk back radio – are far more responsible for promoting political divisiveness than our social media filter bubbles.
That might sound weird, because old media is old, and bubbles are new, right?
“Living in bubbles is the natural state of affairs for human beings,” stated Derek Thompson, who wrote an extremely solid take-down of the filter bubble thesis over at The Atlantic. Turns out, human civilisation is a lot like a small child’s birthday party: expect fun bubbles and a lot of small people who can’t see stuff that’s right in front of them. That’s because bubbles are everywhere, Thompson argued, pointing to everything from generations of well-documented racial divides in friendship circles all the way up to housing policies that create divisions based on wealth and skin colour. It’s a pretty compelling argument, and I suggest you read it in full. Alternatively, think about your own life: you’re probably in just as much of a bubble online as you are offline.
But hey, the internet is still a cesspool of misinformation, right?
Well, yes and no. While it’s true that Macedonia’s GDP is now 75% based on fake news factories staffed by angsty teenagers (ok fine, that’s almost certainly not true), the internet is still awesome. Don’t you remember that sense of optimism for the World Wide Web you felt back in the days when you still watched TV? It’s the information super-highway!
Despite our modern pessimism, the internet rocks, and the data proves it. Just take a look at this paper, which looked at the relationship between political opinions, social media algorithms and search engines. The results should fascinate anyone who likes to do things like think coherently, make rational decisions and other stuff like that.
“For example, do search engines and social media provide people with information that aligns with their beliefs and opinions or do they challenge them to consider countervailing perspectives?” researchers asked.
The results might restore your faith in humanity. The research was based on surveys of internet users in the US and six European nations, and found most people rely on and value news found through Google or other search engines more than whatever trash arrives on their social media doorstep each morning.
“Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers,” one of the paper’s authors, Professor William Dutton explained.
In other words, people who probably already hold strong political views are more likely to escape their filter bubble than everyone else. It’s almost like political polarisation could be a good thing; unless you’re a conservative, in which case you’re probably a “pathological” consumer of fake news. So, I guess that just means smart people are politically polarised, and on the far left end of the spectrum. Though, that might be the Marxist in me talking.
Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to the best part of the story yet.
According to Dutton, it’s not just the politically motivated who double check dodgy stories; rather, “People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.”
So if you’re extremely politically motivated and spend a ton of time on the internet, then congratulations – you’re probably fairly well informed.
So, to recap: smart people also happen to be politically polarised communists who use the internet a lot.
Huh, I’m really liking where this is going.
Admittedly, Dutton did concede the data showed social media bubbles do exist, and they do impact “some users some of the time.”
So who are these people? The short answer is exactly what I suggested before: people who suck at the internet. Or, as Dutton concluded, “That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.”
So it turns out internet-addicted millennial ideologues aren’t killing democracy; the real culprits are the masses of politically lethargic internet illiterates who can’t tell washingtonpost.com from washingtonpost.com.co, bloomberg.ma from bloomberg.com and infowars.com from anything that vaguely resembles reality.
They’re the ones killing democracy, those backwards barbarians with their floppy disks and dusty collections of VHS tapes.
Or are they?
The funny thing is that filter bubbles are being blamed for killing a democracy that was already as dead as the look in Melania Trump’s eyes. Back in 2014, another group of researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities decided to look at whether or not decisions made by the government actually reflect the will of the people. After looking at nearly 1,800 U.S. policies enacted between 1981 and 2002, they came to a startling conclusion: there was no correlation whatsoever between what the public wanted, and what their elected officials actually did. On the other hand, they did find that U.S. policy aligned almost perfectly with the interests and desires of two specific groups: “economic elites and organised groups representing business interests.”
“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it,” researchers concluded.
Of course, there’s been a crop of subsequent papers aiming to debunk these findings, some of which point out middle class concerns can also be taken seriously in Washington. Nonetheless, it’s hard to disagree with the general point: on issues that matter, change is all too often virtually impossible, even with overwhelming public support.
For example, Eight out of 10 Republicans actually support gun control. Over half of Americans believe the government is responsible for ensuring everyone has access to healthcare, with 95% of voters supporting either single payer, a mixed market of public and private options or a continuation of popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Only 5 percent of the population actually opposes the idea of the government providing healthcare. It’s strange then, that an opinion that’s only supported by 5% of the population is considered legitimate and mainstream in Washington, while relatively popular ideas like single payer are treated like a joke by most Democrats and Republicans alike.
Then there’s the policies that were never actually subject to serious and informed public debate. Did you vote in favour of troop deployments to Niger? Can you point to Niger on a map? Could you even correctly pronounce “Niger”?
For any liberals who have been on my side so far, I want to emphasise that none of this would be any different if Hillary had won. Things likewise won’t get much better if you move to Canada or whatever, because most of the western world is in the same boat. We all live under deeply undemocratic regimes. Some are more humane than others, some function better while others just have better marketing. In the end though, if there’s one thing we can agree on it’s that politicians as a breed are lying sacks of shit who care about donations (read: legal bribes) more than the interests of ordinary people. Our really-existing democracy is designed from the ground up to pander to big business and the rich, while the rest of us are free to argue over the latest hashtag.
I don’t know if it’d really be all that bad for this lousy so-called democracy to collapse. I’m not sure if it’d be a good thing either, but I do know the entire social media bubble issue is pretty inconsequential compared to serious yet less less sexy topics like campaign financing, the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, the oversized influence of lobby groups, the grotesque parade of garbage that is conventional media and simply the general, ubiquitous grip of big money on our modern civilisation’s political, social and cultural discourse.
In the face of such a behemoth of corruption and elitism, blaming our current state of affairs on social media habits is a bit like blaming consumers for our litter problem.
At this point, I should probably make clear that I’m not saying don’t try to get out of your bubble and engage with other political points of view. We’re all guilty of indulging in our bubbles, myself included. Nonetheless, your Facebook posts simply don’t matter as much as you think they do, because as old Thucydides put it, “While the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
That simple fact was just as true today as it was two and a half millennia ago, and no amount of likes, retweets, claps or upvotes will change that. So let’s not let Fox and its friends like Alex Jones dictate the manner in which our society becomes politically polarised. Wallow in the right bubble, get politically polarised and destroy capitalism. It’s just the smart thing to do.
First published at dissentsansfrontieres.com.