Polarization, Partisanship, and Politics
Polarization, Partisanship, and Politics. The Internet has brought a lot of people together in communities. At the same time, it has also driven people apart. Or has it?
Y2K and Bush v. Gore – That was the Year
Close American Presidential elections are nothing new.
The Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, after all, was settled by the House of Representatives. But Y2K was the first year within living memory when the popular vote was so close, and the margins so razor-thin that a great political divide could readily be seen in this country.
However, in 2000, the percentage of Americans online was only about 44%.
Contrast that to today. According to Internet World Stats, American Internet usage is at 87% as of March of 2014. Even the American population that doesn’t use the Internet at all is declining, with West Virginia and Mississippi having the highest percentage of nonusers. As would be expected, use and nonuse of the Internet correlates pretty closely with income and age.
But back to Y2K. With less than half of the country online, and neither Twitter nor Facebook (the Huffington Post didn’t exist yet, either), people turning to the Internet for their news were mainly getting it from sites like the New York Times Online. But it was more likely that citizens were getting their news from offline sources, including the paper version of the New York Times. According to Kreiss, D. (2012). Innovation, infrastructure, and organization in new media campaigning. In Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, (pp. 3–32). New York: Oxford University Press. [PDF], there was a small presence of candidates online, but it didn’t get too sophisticated until the Howard Dean campaign of 2004. Per Kreiss, “During the 2000 primaries, Bill Bradley and John McCain demonstrated the potential of small-dollar online fund-raising. McCain raised record amounts of money online after his New Hampshire primary victory over George W. Bush. During that electoral cycle, political staffers also began to recognize for the first time that the primary users of candidate websites were supporters, not undecided voters seeking detailed policy statements. To take advantage of this, campaigns began encouraging supporter participation instead of just presenting ‘brochureware’ designed to persuade those who sought out information on the candidate.” (Page 5)
Hence with only a limited online presence for candidates, and readerships that mainly consisted of already convinced supporters, it does not appear that the political divide was caused by Internet access or usage. It seems to instead predate the ubiquity of Internet access and usage that we see today.
While it seems that there is a gulf between the two sides in American politics (and that gulf is currently getting wider due to various hot button issues such as gun control and the Middle East, both of which lend themselves well to snappy soundbites and infographics online), a bigger gulf is amongst individuals.
Preaching to the Choir
Facebook in particular automatically culls and curates what we see. We express our preferences every single day by either hitting like, or following, or selecting “I don’t want to see this.” We also make our choices in terms of who we add as our friends, and whose content we respond to.
Facebook engagement is declining, but a lot of that has to do with the amount of information that is thrown at us every single day. Statistic Brain says that the average amount of time spent on Facebook is 18 minutes, and the average number of friends is 130. Hence for every minute online (on average), you are potentially reading about the activity of a little over seven friends (48% of all users check Facebook every single day). With so much activity, it’s no wonder that users would seek to cut out the noise. Furthermore, much like we don’t purchase every single publication at a newsstand, users select what they want to see.
According to Sunstein, C. R. (2007, December 14). The polarization of extremes. The Chronicle of Higher Education 54(16), B9. [Library Link], “In 1995 the technology specialist Nicholas Negroponte predicted the emergence of ‘the Daily Me’ – a newspaper that you design personally, with each component carefully screened and chosen in advance. For many of us, Negroponte‘s prediction is coming true.” But why wouldn’t this happen? Time is a finite commodity. As the number of Facebook (and other social media outlets) users continues to rise, the average number of connections is bound to rise as well. The average amount of time on any given site probably will rise, too, but it will eventually butt up against a brick wall. Day length is finite, and people have lives outside of Facebook. Even with tablets and smart phones, there is still plenty of time spent not engaging in social media-style activities.
With limited time and attention, the flood of information has to be stopped somehow. We build dams and divert it or dry up some of our sources. We unfriend people, we leave certain sites, and we become more parsimonious with our time. As for what remains, we understandably choose what we want to see and hear – because we are able to now. But diverse and even opposing viewpoints do creep in. According to Manjoo, F. (2012, January 17). The end of the echo chamber: A study of 250 million Facebook users reveals the web isn’t as polarized as we thought. Slate. [Link], “The fact that weak ties introduce us to novel information wouldn’t matter if we only had a few weak ties on Facebook. But it turns out that most of our relationships on Facebook are pretty weak, according to Bakshy’s study. Even if you consider the most lax definition of a “strong tie”—someone from whom you’ve received a single message or comment—most people still have a lot more weak ties than strong ones. And this means that, when considered in aggregate, our weak ties—with their access to novel information—are the most influential people in our networks. Even though we’re more likely to share any one thing posted by a close friend, we have so many more mere acquaintances posting stuff that our close friends are all but drowned out.”
For Cass Sunstein, having an average or typical consumer, reader, listener or viewer in mind means that everyone is fed every bit of political information. He feels that’s better, that people can become informed about more than just their own immediate personal interests. Separation concerns him. And it’s already here. But the truth is, the typical consumer never really existed. I feel he’s pining for a past that seems a bit too golden and fuzzy, wearing a halo that it does not deserve.
Are we more separate today? Yes, absolutely. The United States is far from homogeneous these days. But we’re not quite all confined to our own little silos or ivory towers. At least, we aren’t yet.