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Is the Internet Dividing Us?

Computer hacker portrait
Divided We Fall

Well, the election is over, and many folks are still reeling. No matter what one’s political affiliation, most folks consider it to have been an ugly election. We seem more divided than ever. A decade or two ago, in the earlier days of the Internet, many thought that the (almost) free access to information and ideas would educate and enlighten us all. That it would lead to us being more tolerant and egalitarian. That it would free us from the biases and prejudices that often divide us. Strange, but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way though. I wrote in my last blog how it is important to find common ground, but that seems increasingly hard to do. Given the early promises, we wonder: Is the Internet dividing us? Let’s explore this a little.

Why We Divide in the First Place

Throughout our evolution, we lived in small groups, tribes, or clans of usually no more than 150 people. We existed as these hunter-gatherers since between 1 and 2 million years ago. We gradually began transitioning to more agriculturally-based societies between around 10,000 to 20,000 BC. Thus, our brains and social interactions were based on very different living conditions than we have today. We used to have to figure out how to get along with our fellow tribe members. Our mutual survival depended upon it.

We naturally tend to gravitate toward people who are similar to us because it has survival value. To give an extreme example, evolutionarily, if we didn’t fear lions, we could be eaten by one. Throughout our lives as hunter-gatherers, members of a tribe were very similar to one another in food, clothing, habits, traditions, beliefs, and so on.

With our smartphones and social media, we now have virtually unlimited access to people. Given the choices that we now have, most people gravitate to those similar to themselves. This could be in the form of our religious or political beliefs, race, gender, age, music tastes, hobbies, and so on. Our technologies, such as social media, give us the option to choose to affiliate with those who are similar to us. So, of course, we do just that!

Getting Along With Others

Now, in a way, there isn’t anything wrong with preferring to affiliate with people similar to ourselves (in-person or virtually). But the aggregate effect of millions, or billions, of people doing this is reduced exposure to different people and ideas. There is a mountain of research that indicates that the best way to diminish negative judgments and perceptions of others is to increase social interactions among different group members. It is through being face-to-face with others (the way nature intended us to interact) that we can start to see them as “people” rather than just “others” who are part of some outgroup.

Since so much of our social interaction takes place through our faceless technologies, we don’t have to be tolerant of those different from us. We can just choose to “unfriend,” block, or not follow them. We can even harass and troll them through the protection of anonymity. Instead of seeing how “others” are people like us, we separate from them as we cluster in groups who are similar to us. Perhaps you remember the powerful message from Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches?

Our Access to Information

The Internet has exploded with information that we can easily access, but our brains haven’t evolved to sort through or absorb this flood of information. We need to choose what information that we are exposed to given that there is just such an overwhelming amount out there. And what do we want be exposed to? What we already like and are interested in, of course! As we all know, our news feeds in Facebook and social media change based on what we view and like. Thus, they feed us information that they “think,” based upon their algorithms, that we will respond to.

While it makes sense that the social media giants want to feed us what we like, there is an aggregate negative effect of doing this. We end up becoming more polarized because we are exposed to fewer ideas. We get the information and news feeds that support what we already think and believe. Thus, there is a gigantic version of the “confirmation bias” created such that our data is culled and cherry-picked to support what we already like, think, and believe. We receive a curated view of reality which reinforces our biased perceptions.

The Problem of “Fake” News

Although it doesn’t seem that showman P.T. Barnum actually said, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” that sentiment is true regardless of who said it. Humans aren’t great a looking at sources of information to determine their accuracy. This isn’t a “right” or “left” problem – it’s just human tendency. We didn’t evolve to have to “check the source” of information. Information was rather limited throughout our evolution. We were concerned with basic needs such as food, shelter, and survival. Fellow group and tribe members had little reason to lie, face-to-face, about where a source of water was located, for instance. The very survival of the group was dependent upon one another.

The extent to which fake news influenced the election results is a hot topic and will likely never be resolved. Of course, one’s beliefs about this will be heavily biased based upon our preconceived notions. However, since we are not good at questioning the source of our information, we often tend to take news feeds at face value. Of course, these fake news feeds are also curated such that we get the fake news that we are likely to want to believe in the first place. Much of this fake news tends to vilify the “others” and caste our respective group in the most favorable light. It contributes to greater division and polarization between groups.

The Takeaway on the Internet Dividing Us?

When we ask whether the Internet is dividing us, there is not a black or white answer. Certainly, we can interact, socialize, and collaborate with others in ways we could only dream of decades ago. We can form online groups and communities that can accomplish wondrous goals. The creation of Wikipedia through crowd-sourcing is a great example of this.

However, the Internet, and our many technologies, will forever be doubled-edged swords. Nature has developed our brains over the course of millions of years to interact with a world that is very different from the world in which we now live. Some of these “hard-wired” biases and tendencies can often cause us to act in ways that can be quite destructive. One might compare this to the problems of global climate change and obesity.

While we are supposed to be a “united” states, it seems like this is increasingly challenging. The technologies that were once thought to help break down barriers and unite us seem to be contributing to greater division. A wise man once said that “a house divided cannot stand.” We need to heed the power of this wisdom, the lessons of Dr. Seuss and the Sneetches, and find ways to see others as ourselves. It’s possible to do this, but it takes a mindful effort on all of our parts. We have to remember that our happiness is connected with one another. Being mindful of the truth that “united we stand, divided we fall” can help us to uphold this ideal.

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