In the past week alone, thousands of Facebook users have publicly promised to unfriend each and every Trump supporter in their network, regardless of — in the words of one Trump critic — “how long I’ve known you or how close we are.”
“Did a search for ‘my friends who like Donald Trump,’” wrote one man after Tuesday’s Republican debates. “Unfriended about 30 bigots! I don’t need friends like that!”
Political scuffles aren’t unusual among friends and acquaintances, of course — it’s part of the reason the topic is typically never raised in polite conversation. But in an era where Americans are both more polarized than ever and more able to tailor their environments to their preexisting views, standard disagreements have veered in an ugly, intolerant direction: one that’s inconsistent, critics argue, with our most fundamental democratic values.
“Since the 16th century, we’ve figured out ways of going about disagreements that don’t involve killing each other,” said Mark Kingwell, a political philosopher at the University of Toronto. “It’s a basic liberal notion that when people disagree on something, they can’t just go their own way — there has to be a discourse.”
In the era of News Feeds and content-blockers, however, avoiding discourse and dissent has never been so easy. Geographically and socially speaking, people have always clustered with other people who share their background and views: If you’re a Republican, or an atheist, or a member of the middle class, then it’s likely that your best friend and next door neighbor are, too.
But thanks to the proliferation of partisan media and the rise of intermediaries like Facebook and Google News, it’s now also possible to tailor the information you get to your preexisting politics. And while activists have long championed the Internet as a means to encounter more diverse and “cross-cutting,” or opposite, views, experience suggests that hasn’t happened quite the way we thought it would.
On Twitter, for instance, people who tweet about politics tend to tweet primarily at and with people who belong to the same party, creating what one team of researchers called “pockets of political polarization.” (A 2014 study suggested such pockets could become less polarized as they tweeted with other groups, but the jury’s still out on that one.) On Facebook, the average user agrees with the politics of more than three-fourths of her friends. The social network has found that affinity is more pronounced among liberals than it is among conservatives; it’s also found that, because most users signal to the algorithm (through their clicks) that they’re more interested in stories that agree with their politics, the algorithm tends to surface more of that agreeable, re-affirmative content.
“Individual choice has a larger role in limiting exposure to ideologically cross cutting content [than the News Feed algorithm],” a recent study by Facebook’s own data team ruled. “We show that the composition of our social networks is the most important factor limiting the mix of content encountered in social media.”
In other words, the thing most polarizing people online is people themselves — a phenomenon that the latest string of anti-Trump apps, browser extensions and add-ons would not appear to help. On top of the unfriending site, there’s an iPhone app called Trump Trump that will eliminate the candidate’s name from the websites you’re browsing, as if he didn’t exist. Remove Donald Trump from Facebook will, as its name suggests, scrub the candidate from your News Feed. A mountain of Chrome extensions will replace Trump’s name or picture with a series of other things: “Voldemort,” “your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving” — even the smiling poop emoji.
Some of these may seem pretty funny — and in practice, they can be. But they all share the rather serious goal of helping users avoid engaging their civic and political reality.
“I can imagine people installing these apps to ‘protect’ themselves from contrary opinions: global warming, women’s rights, gun-owner’s rights, vegetarianism, CrossFit, whatever it is that they don’t like,” said Julio Castillo, the (apparently regretful) creator of the Trump-blocking app Trump Trump. “It’s a little like everyone creating their own great firewall of China to censor everything that annoys them.”
Castillo imagines religious cults that mandate members block information sources they disagree with, or loyalty programs that reward customers for blocking the competition. Somewhere far down the road, he fears, we might find ourselves in a world like the one depicted in the BBC’s “Black Mirror,” where dissenters or outcasts can be “blocked” from other people’s views as a form of punishment. Once blocked, their reality diverges from everyone else’s.
“This is basic to the fundamental liberal aspiration: to put yourself in the position of the other,” Kingwell said. “If we don’t do that, we’re not a community. We’re a bunch of micro-communities and … to me that’s quite dystopian.”
We’re not quite there yet, the experts reassure me — and steps could be taken away from that ledge. A social network called Roust, currently in beta, promises to gather an ideologically diverse crowd to “discuss tough topics like politics, religion and social matters.” Opposite the content-blockers of the Internet, extensions like “Balancer” analyze your browsing history and tell you when it skews liberal or conservative.
And yet, as much as technological innovations could help the problem, the big issue remains users themselves. Kingwell, the philosopher, has spent his career attempting to convince people that civility and discourse are political virtues worth aspiring to; lately, he’s had to make his message a little more doomsday, stressing that — without consensus and moderation — everyone basically stands to lose.
“You have to be willing to read the comments section. You have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable,” he stresses. “You can’t possibly realize how limited your bubble is from inside of it.”
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