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The Internet Has Only Widened Our Political Divisions

02/01/2016 04:47 EST | Updated 02/01/2017 05:12 EST
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Businessmen playing tug-of-war

In today's Internet-driven world, the conventional wisdom is that the exponential increase in available information makes for a better and more widely-informed populace. The presumption is that access to more and more policy and opinion websites allows people to achieve ever-higher levels of understanding.

In truth, the explosion of easily obtainable information may well have had the opposite effect. The same technology that allows us to find millions of disparate sites also provides a multitude of tools to limit the type of information that we receive.

The assumption is that those interested in the opinions and policies of the day will range far and wide in choosing what to read. Enquiring minds will sample freely and widely in their quest to inform themselves about any particular topic.

The fact is, however, that most of us fall victim to the filtering technology offered us online at every turn. Instead of bravely (and sometimes blindly) searching out the "truth" on our own, we happily hand over responsibility to searching tools that do the job for us.

The problem is that these searching tools are geared to our own stated interests and biases. When we subscribe to a newsfeed or "like" a site on Facebook, we immediately limit and restrict the type of news and opinion we'll receive and the ideological slant of that news and opinion.

Some would say this is still an improvement on the blinkered news and opinion reading performed in the old analogue, printed-page world of the previous millennium. After all, most people subscribed to one daily newspaper, a paper that fed and reinforced the reader's political prejudices, be they liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic.

While there is some truth in that observation, it's not entirely accurate. While most daily newspapers had a well-defined ideological bent, many also attempted a fair and balanced approach that provided at least one and sometimes two opinion columnists writing from the opposite political stance commonly taken by the newspaper.

"The political promise of the Internet has faded. What initially looked like a new era of more widely shared opinion has morphed into an even more polarized nation of opinion makers and holders."

Think of the New York Times, which even today fields a conservative columnist or two to counter its generally liberal editorial slant. This is nothing new for "The Gray Lady" which two generations ago allowed right-of-centre wordsmiths like William Safire to grace its opinion pages.

That approach seems almost naïve and laughable in today's electronic onslaught of polarized viewpoints. There is now a wealth of sites with every prefixed viewpoint from neo- to ultra- to crypto- to post- to proto- liberalism, conservatism, Marxism or any other -ism your heart desires.

The problem is that we don't treat the Internet as an opinion buffet which, in part, is understandable. There is simply too much information and too little time. Thus, we are obliged to filter that universe of information to tease out that which we want to view.

Ideally, we would ask our Internet filter to provide us with a range of views on our topics of interest. But human nature doesn't work that way. If we are liberal by inclination, we're going to ask for a sampling of liberal views on any given topic. Likewise, if we have a conservative bias, our online profile or specifically stated desires are going to yield us a surfeit of right-wing opinions.

Given the polarization of opinion sites, we are far less likely to receive some contrary views when our desired opinion pieces show up in our inbox or on our Facebook page. At least the New York Times gave a liberal reader a dose of William Safire (or in today's edition, a dollop of David Brooks or Ross Douthat).

Today if you're a self-described neo-liberal, you're likely going to get nothing but neo-liberal opinions and news with a neo-liberal slant. It doesn't pay for a website to present a wide range of opinions; to stand out, it must be more narrow in its presentation and ironically less Catholic than the Pope.

I submit that this narrowing of opinion exposure has exacerbated the ongoing harsh divide between Republicans and Democrats and between liberals and conservatives which David Frum has referenced in his most recent piece in the Atlantic.

As he noted, in 1960, only five percent of Americans would have been upset if their child married a person who supported the opposite political party. By 2010, a third of Democrats and half of Republicans expressed concern.

Sadly, the political promise of the Internet has faded. What initially looked like a new era of more widely shared opinion has morphed into an even more polarized nation of opinion makers and holders. It almost makes you long for the halcyon and civilized days of the printed newspaper.

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