There’s no question: the Internet is the most efficient communication tool ever invented. Unfortunately, most days, it feels like it’s only making us stupider.
The unrelenting chaos leading up to and now trailing in the wake of the 2016 election is proof that the way we use the Internet is destroying everything we love. It’s time we learned to understand how online filter bubbles work, because they’re like wearing horse blinkers. We only see what we need and want to — and not much else. If we want an educated, informed and emotionally mature electorate, this is not how we get it.
What Is a ‘Filter Bubble’?
Facebook is perhaps the best example of a filter bubble, but it’s not the only one. When your aunt or your mom’s friends disseminate — as though it’s breaking news — a meme claiming Hitler wanted larger government, we have a kind of moral responsibility to look into such a claim. Except we don’t. If that image feels realistic to us, we tap on “Like” or “Share,” and then we move on.
This behavior is doing all of us an enormous disservice. We’re becoming factually and emotionally ignorant. Bigotry develops in a vacuum of experience. If we expose ourselves only to people and information that is familiar and comforting to us, we grow up into, for lack of a better phrase, lite sociopaths.
For example: It’s incomprehensible to many in the Republican bubble that child poverty is more of a life sentence today than it’s been in generations. It’s not clear to those in the Christian bubble why people deeply mistrust the commingling of religious ideas and politics.
Democrats have their own bubble, too. They offer a welcoming home to people who are frustrated with Republican politics, but can’t quite seem to unite around substantial policy alternatives. For example, Democrats are notoriously concerned with providing assistance to lower-income citizens. A noble cause, indeed. However, the DNC saying one thing and then remaining loyal to big pharma doesn’t reflect a cohesive and united party message.
See it? All these separate little fiefdoms with their own rules of governance and different shades of reality. Most of us could probably agree that neither party has our best interest at heart when the people in charge are in thrall to big business. And yet, we’re all so busy fighting with each other to see who the real enemy is: the system that boxes us in, makes us dumber and inevitably keeps us quiet even when we think we’re being so. damn. loud.
In reality, we’re just wasting our time either shouting at each other or into our own echo chambers. We say “agree to disagree” quite a lot these days because we can’t even agree on a common set of facts — much less opinions.
Winnowing and Binary Choices
Talking about this would be quite a lot easier if there was some boogeyman to point to and blame. Some Bond villain to swivel slowly in his chair and gesture to the panopticon he’s built to keep us all stuck. All the little ants marching in their endless quest to have their opinions validated by strangers on the net.
But there’s no villain. It’s just us insecure humans dividing ourselves by tribe again. We do it using bleeding-edge technology, but it’s still tribalism. Folks like Steve Bannon beat the war drums against “globalism,” or else their interpretation of that word, but all they’re really fighting is the knowledge that the world is very small, and its inhabitants must work together — or else perish.
But we can’t get our act together if we keep living in bubbles.
Today, our bubbles push us into morally uncomfortable binary choices between things that are, for the most part, functionally identical. Almost 40 percent of Americans identify as “independent” voters, but we still allow the vast spectrum of human ethics to be distilled down into two very unpalatable choices: Red or Blue? Democrat or Republican? Good guys or bad guys? Even so-called “independent” voters often behave like partisans at heart.
It’d be almost comical if this great winnowing didn’t cut to the very soul of how our species conducts itself. Yes, we do this to ourselves — we all do, every day — but vast, corporate-owned media empires don’t do much to help the situation.
Did you know one of the richest men of all time is also a CIA contractor? Did you know he has owned the Washington Post since 2013 and has now presided over its most morally questionable period yet? Jeff Bezos doesn’t get to build data centers for the CIA all over the world if there’s no war all over the world.
And do we even need to discuss Fox News and the Republican echo chamber? They put even less effort into their lies. They talk about people talking about the Affordable Care Act, but have little to say about health care itself that is actually helpful. Their news “personalities” like Bill O’Reilly — who won’t be missed — and Alex Jones spend their time screaming repetitive nonsense like “migrant rapists,” international gun confiscation by “the globalists” and the creep of “big government” at a time when the U.S. government barely functions.
And it’s so effective psychologists have a name for it: the “illusory truth effect.” It’s the phenomenon whereby we manufacture reality through repetition.
Everybody with a self-serving agenda does it — and it’s killing us. The world isn’t “liberal” or “conservative” — it’s impossible to have conflicting sets of facts. People are just people. They have needs and wants. Most of us just want to live our lives in peace. But the longer we choose to expose ourselves only to the facts that confirm our beliefs, the longer we’ll continue to turn back the clock of progress. We’ll continue to get dumber about how politics works, how the world works and how to just talk to people like human beings.
Even some relentless partisans seem to give up on dogma when faced with facts and the human cost of remaining ignorant. So? Seek facts — not rhetoric or the comfort of a familiar opinion. Follow the money. See who might have an agenda. But mostly? Just get out of your comfort zone. As long as we’re all drinking from separate fountains of knowledge, we’ll just keep getting more politically and socially closed-minded and under-informed.
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