Can We Blame The Internet For Political Polarization?

It seems logical to blame the internet for our growing political polarization. Some blame “fake news” shared on Twitter and Facebook for the outcome of the 2016 election. And we know tens of millions of Americans get their news from social media.

But if the internet is the cause of our great political divide, we should expect the people who spend the most time online, younger Americans,  to be the most polarized. But it turns out that’s not the case. According to a Stanford study, between 1996 and 2012, Americans 65 and older showed the greatest increases in political polarization.

“It’s a very simple idea,” said Stanford economics professor Matthew Gentzkow, who co-authored the paper with colleagues Levi Boxell and Jesse Shapiro. “If the driver of increasing political polarization is social media and filter bubbles and all that, then the trend should be especially pronounced for younger people. Instead, polarization has gone up more for groups that don’t go online.”

What then is responsible for the growing political polarization in America? If it’s not the internet, then maybe it’s cable news, a medium dominated by older viewers.

Studies find that Fox News, a right-leaning channel founded in 1996, had a measurable effect on voting patterns. Places that got Fox News in time for the 2000 election increased their support for George W. Bush by about half a percentage point. And in subsequent elections, places where Fox News was easier to find on the channel lineup had higher levels of Republican voting, according to economists Gregory Martin and Ali Yurukoglu.

So that’s it then, right? Well, not so fast.

[T]he trend of rising partisanship predates even the partisan cable networks. As Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro show, political polarization has been increasing since at least the 1970s.

We likely will not find a single catalyst for our political chasm, but it hardly seems coincidental that polarization began increasing in the 1970s, just after the social upheaval of the preceding decade. The changes that occurred in the 1960s, both politically and socially, started the long march toward party purity. There once were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, something we pretty much finished sorting out in recent years. It’s safe to say nearly all Democrats are liberal, or at least left-leaning, and just about all –yeah, probably all- Republicans are conservative. Take party purity, combine it with societal fissures, including sexual identity, race, economic inequality, then add the partisan cable news echo chamber, and last, sprinkle in the social media “bubble” effect. — I give you the political battlefield that is America 2017.

While we can’t wholly blame the internet for political polarization, it is in the mix. And though it is reasonable to postulate cable news has an oversized corollary on polarization, maybe we need more precision in our language. What do we mean by polarization? We aren’t really saying we’ve become more partisan, it’s that we have grown more likely to see the other side as the enemy. There’s now a more pronounced political demarcation, offering a clear “us vs. them” choice, a dynamic not as distinctly defined in times before party purity.

In 1960, only about 5 percent of Americans said they would disapprove their children married someone of the opposite party. But in 2010, 40 percent of parents said they would be “upset” at such a marriage.

An isolationist political atmosphere has manifest from party purity. Enhancing this climate is a suite of confirmation bias tools like the internet and social media, but especially cable news, which makes for a fearfully effective tool for weaponizing ideology. On cable news, there’s no time for thoughtful circumspection, instead pundits offer opinionated surgical strikes, pounding nuance and deliberation into submission.

Because older Americans are the biggest audience for cable news, it poses interesting questions for the future. As younger Americans grow older, will they increasingly tune into cable news? And if they do, will they too show increased polarization, just like their parents and grandparents? Stay tuned for the next 30, 40, 50 years.

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