How Google and Facebook Divided Our Nation

chasm

We all saw it coming.  Oh, we didn’t know who was going to win this presidential election.  We may have put our hopes into one candidate.  But, nobody was really confident of a landslide victory.  We still saw it coming – this ever widening chasm between people.  No matter who won this election, there were going to be demonstrations and protests.

A long time ago I thought that there were simply disagreements among people regarding particular issues because the words “liberal” and “conservative” never fully defined the differences of opinion.  I knew plenty on both sides of the political spectrum that had nuanced opinions.  For instance some would say I am a “fiscal conservative but liberal on social issues.”

I’m not sure when it happened.  But, slowly people’s opinions became more rigid.  Beliefs became facts.

I have always prided myself as standing in the middle.  I resonated with being fiscally conservative and accountable.  It seemed as if reasonable systems insured our safety and our future.  I don’t believe in entitlement funding.  But, I do believe in investing in people who are on the margins of society and are without resources.  They are of value.  I am a typical American, a descendant from immigrants.  So, I have no problem granting a way for people to enter our country to attach to the American dream as my ancestors did.  I especially am moved by those that live in war torn countries and have been forced to be refugees.  I will never experience their pain and displacement.  And, I feel an obligation to them as a fellow human being.  All I am saying is that before this election I have consistently voted for the same number of Democrats as Republicans.

I understand that those of you on the right will consider me on the left and those on the left will consider me too far right.  I get that.  I have endured criticism from both sides because of my centrist views.

However, I am not in the middle anymore.  The middle doesn’t exist.

Two events happened in the last two months that allowed me to draw this conclusion.  I was in the car with a buddy of mine for two hours.  Our conversation shifted to politics at some point during our time together.  He used the word “leftist” when referring to well respected newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.  His source documents came from the Drudge Report, which is a compilation of links to news stories selected by Matt Drudge.  After looking at his site, Drudge would probably be classified as a “rightist” if there were such an equally derogatory word.  Obviously, my buddy and I were working from two separate sources in forming our opinions.

The other event involved my wife.  She made a comment to me about her news feed on her phone.  She talked about how her feed gave her the articles she wanted to read.

Then it hit me.  Twenty years ago 50% of Americans would wake up and walk out to their driveway to pick up a nicely wrapped gift.  It was called a newspaper.  Every city had at least one newspaper company that would carefully determine the information in which the residents in the community might be most interested.  There were ethical guidelines for journalists (which still exist to some degree).  People felt relatively confident that the newspaper didn’t lie to them.  The job of the newspaper was to reveal the entire story and report it accurately, relying on verifiable facts.  Opinion pieces were limited and relegated to the opinion page of the paper.  To be an opinion columnist, one had to be considered one of impeccable journalistic pedigree.  In each community we all had the same source documents.  Our discussions emanated from the same facts.

It probably started with shock jocks on the radio and television shows that tested the boundaries of rational thoughts some twenty years ago.  It has definitely culminated in a wide open internet where the user can choose from a wide array of source documents from which to draw conclusions.  In some ways our culture has flipped the script here.  Most of us find source documents that support our already drawn conclusions.  Let’s be honest.  Our conclusions are more firmly based on our own cultural bias and skewed points of view.

Take the second amendment for example.  If we own a gun and want to retain that right, we will search out source documentation to support what we want to continue to do.  And the more fearful we are of that right being taken away from us, the more we put our stock into extreme hyperbolic source documents to support our desire.  Those are the stories that engage our emotions, igniting our passion.  Our emotional investment in an issue shields us from considering other sources that run counter to our invested beliefs.

Enter Google and Facebook.  These companies have carefully developed algorithms to make it easier for us to find the things we like.  When I purchase something or search for something in my browser, Google knows what I have done.  Google makes sure that those items I am looking for move to the top of my searches.  Facebook tracks my interests also.  My feed on Facebook is largely determined by those topics and persons with whom I engage.  The advertisements are placed there because of my previous behavior on my browser and by what I like on Facebook.  We are only fed what we have previously consumed.  The information that comes to us in our Facebook or news feed is information we want to read about.  Our opinions are being reinforced by other sources in line with what we have read previously, thereby bolstering our confidence that our opinion and facts we read are correct.  Therefore, the chasm between our opinions and the opposing opinions grows wider.  We literally never read the source documents of those who disagree with us.  And, if we do read opposing sources, we devalue them because our source documents have told us to do so.

If our facts are flawed and they become the foundation of our beliefs and subsequent actions, we are personally in deep trouble.  We become unknowingly manipulated by what we think is true.

And if we are only fed the information we believe to be true without balancing opinions and perspectives from the other side, then our society is in deep trouble.  It becomes unavoidable.  The chasm only widens with two sets of starkly different facts based on opposing sources, not just a difference opinion on singular issues.  This shapes opposing ideologies, without hope of reconciliation.

When I was with my friend for those two hours in the car, I realized we have formed a very different understanding of what America is and should be based on the sources we are reading.  He isn’t a bad guy.  I like him.  But, I’m not sure how our ideas of America will ever come together.

This is sad and depressing for our country.  The chasm is so deep and wide.  As a person who used to be in the middle and one who values discussion from differing points of view, I hope the narrative will change.  We need effective leadership that will bridge the divide.  Leadership can emanate from elected leaders, though they are bound by political party affiliation and the voters who placed them in office.  Leadership can come from religious leaders.  But, they too have their sets of facts and source documents, limiting their effectiveness and credibility.  So, how about it, Google and Facebook?  Can you change the algorithms and begin to bring us all back together?

Or, possibly, each of us should take some responsibility in our own communities, both virtual and real.  What if we were to once again agree on principles that might span religious belief and ideological concepts thereby building a foundation to discuss these important issues?  What if we were to challenge our sources and the facts as they measure up to these principles?  What do you think?

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