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How the Internet is Polarizing and Radicalizing our Population

Robert Dimuro

Posted on January 12, 2019 22:24

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The most bitter societal divisions are partly a result of how we obtain and disseminate information online.

Many people see the Internet as a bastion of freedom - freedom of exploration, information, and content creation. Indeed, you can search for whatever you want, watch any video you want, buy and sell anything you want, download and upload anything you want, etc. The ability to do all of this easily and instantly has vastly improved many aspects of our society, including the economy and our standard of living.

The internet has also vastly improved our ability to learn about and broadcast new ideas, resulting in a more knowledgeable populace. However, negative sociopolitical consequences have arisen from how we obtain and spread these ideas.

These consequences are largely a product of the influence that social media has on millions of its users. Various platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, tailor content to the preferences and habits of each user – giving them more and more of what they want. They obtain this information based on posts you like, people you follow, and videos you watch.

The problem with how social media operates is that it allows users to remain in their own echo chambers - viewing like-minded content and joining like-minded communities online. In this sense, people usually are only browsing a minimal amount of overall content from a minimal amount of content creators - whether it be from select YouTube channels or Facebook accounts, for example. In other words, people are seeing only what they want to see and hearing only what they want to hear.

In these echo chambers, there is a tendency for radical points of view to thrive and persist, as suggested content eventually brings people to more and more extreme pages and channels. Radical content isn’t necessarily what people like the most; however, they tend to get the most clicks based on their ability to capture users’ attention. Also, unlike other forms of media, online platforms tend to give equal space to all content, including those based on extreme or hateful ideas. Naturally, social media has caused more and more people to engage with these kinds of ideas.

In part, these phenomena have led to the rampant tribal divisions that plague our society today. Perhaps, these divisions are most intense on the Internet, where people engage in character defamation and hate speech on a regular basis towards people they’ve never met. Rather than rational discussion, social media promotes the use of short hit pieces meant either to troll people or to anger them - not unlike the type of discussion that occurs on cable news.

The reason why this behavior is rampant on the Internet is because people online are anonymous users that don’t have to engage with people on a personal face-to-face basis. One of the best things we can do to alleviate hateful, close-minded divisions based on tribal affiliation is to engage with people and their content online as if we’re sitting across from them at a dinner table having a pleasant discussion about their ideas and points of view.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on January 12, 2019 22:24

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Source: Al Jazeera
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