The Disintegration of the American Body Politic

February 25th, 2012 

Once upon a time in America, we had something called “mass media” providing us with news. There were three main television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Each city had just two or three newspapers. There were a clutch of weekly newsmagazines such as Time and Newsweek. Each of these news sources had to appeal to the broad audience; they couldn’t afford to zero in on any particular segment of the population. At most, we sometimes saw local newspapers divide up into a conservative paper and a liberal paper, such as the Examiner and the Chronicle in San Francisco.

But all that is gone now. Many of the big newspapers remain, but in television there are now a dozen major sources of news, each catering to its own subset of the population. The Internet has dramatically changed the way people get their news: various polls show that the Internet is rapidly catching up with television as the main source of news for many people. It won’t be long before the Internet is the dominant source of news for most people. The Internet offers a huge range of news sources, many of which don’t bother living up to conventional journalistic standards. There’s a lot of bad information bouncing around on the Internet, and it can reverberate through the echo chambers, being amplified at each telling, until it sweeps the truth away. Thus, “Mass Media” has been replaced by “Personal Media”.

Now let’s combine this with a well-documented human propensity: confirmation bias. This is the tendency people have to seek out information that confirms their already-existing beliefs. If you are a liberal, you don’t want to read news stories lauding some conservative politician; if you’re a conservative, you enjoy stories lambasting liberals. 

Combine Personal Media with confirmation bias and you get a simple result: an entire population of citizens with no common basis for discussion. An ideal example of this comes from the climate change deniers. These people are served by several hundred blogs, all serving up the same old lies in random order. Most deniers spend all their time perusing the denier blogs, seeing the same messages being repeated over and over. Everybody they encounter on these blogs is in absolute agreement on all the important issues. If you get all your news on climate change from this group, you’ll imbibe these claims and, never hearing an opposing point of view, come to think of them as certainties. 

These people are completely out of touch with reality. Their claims have been repeatedly debunked from every possible angle, and yet they still keep repeating them. They remain absolutely sure of their beliefs, because 99% of all the information they get favors their beliefs, and the 1% that refutes it – well, they can dismiss that because it’s only 1%. 

The same thing is happening in all areas of American political discussion. Pick your topic: abortion, nuclear power, endangered species, teaching evolution in schools, stem cell research, welfare, oil drilling. Whatever topic you pick, you’ll find two sides with two completely different sources of information, and each side thinks the other side is crazy. When the two sides are arguing and one asks, “What planet are you from?”, that question isn’t so far off the mark. Americans are dividing up into at least two different camps, liberals and conservatives, each of which has its own sources of news that confirm them in their beliefs and contradict the beliefs of their opponents. 

If you have a conflict between two parties, they can resolve it by sitting down and reasoning together or by resorting to violence or force. If those two parties have no common basis of information, then it is impossible for them to reason together. And if they can’t reason together, then how can American democracy survive?