The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side


I think almost all of us can agree that America is extremely polarized right now. The middle, the bipartisan, the moderate, whatever you choose to call it, is either gone or silenced. In the Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective parts 1 and 2, I’d like to add two of my thoughts on why we, in America, are experiencing an extreme polarization.

A couple of disclaimers:

  • My expertise is communications and marketing only. I also recognize that my expertise is limited and that there are people with much greater expertise than I in these fields.
  • If you read into any of this as leaning politically in one way or the other, you are reading something into it that I didn’t put there.
  • I believe, like most large-scale societal issues, that there isn’t one answer or two answers. There are a lot of contributing factors. Again, this is limited to my thoughts based on communications and marketing only. Other subject matter experts will have differing theories and views. I encourage them to share them as well.
  • I do not claim to have the right answers to the concerns I bring up. I offer my best at a solution and hope, by publishing this, that together we can come up with the right solution.

Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side

A couple of years ago for one of my masters courses, we listened to an audio interview of Jaron Lanier where he shares his views on how the Digital Age is changing our world. Part of that interview focused on his essay on Digital Maoism. And, part of this essay focuses on the hive mind, which is “a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.”

The hive mind has many facets, but the part that I think is shaping the polarity of America is how the Internet became an easy way to not have to listen to any viewpoints that didn’t agree with our own. Basically, we can now go to our “hives” without ever seeing or hearing something that is counter to the thinking of our hive.

True, in America, we had this ability prior to the Internet. You could choose to walk past the book in the library that didn’t agree with your way of thinking or refill your snacks while the TV reporter gave the opposing political expert his or her air time. With the Internet, however, you don’t have to “walk past” the other side(s) or try to tune them out. Instead, you can go directly to your side. The Internet made it much easier to only hear the viewpoints that you agree with and, more importantly, not listen to any opposing viewpoints.

One man speaking, another rolling his eyes.
This photo is intentionally not from the U.S., but is a great illustration of my point. The man does not look like he agrees with the other man at all, but at least he’s there, listening, instead of choosing to avoid information. Or maybe there’s just something REALLY interesting on the ceiling. Photo from Flickr: Direitos Urbanos

Our tendency to avoid information that is counter to what we believe to be true is well-documented in Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Whenever we face information that does not agree with information we have in some way, we must resolve the dispute in our head. Although there are a variety of ways to do this, a popular way is to avoid information that challenges our currently held beliefs and that is what we can do by never going to an opposing viewpoint’s website and, instead, go directly to only those that agree with us.

But what about the biased media? Fox News and MSNBC to name two? True, they don’t have opposing viewpoints on there, but my thought here is that they adapted based on the Internet hive mindset. Many news organizations did and still do invite a variety of viewpoints to chime-in on issues. But, since the Internet became popular and people got used to not having to listen to the other side, many of the news organizations adapted to meet their viewers’ new preferences of not listening to point-counterpoint.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I try to avoid biased sources of information and/or balance them by openly listening to the opposing side(s). I’ll admit though, it’s very difficult to do and I’m sure I still approach the opposing side’s arguments with my own biases as a defense. However, from an overall societal standpoint, I’m unsure. Perhaps someone with a historical background has some thoughts on how societies have overcome similar polarization in the past.The best I can come up with is that it would have to be a conscious, cultural change; we would need to become a society that values open, respectful debate again.

The Internet didn’t have to be as an anonymous as it is

I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Internet was anonymous by design or that it could have been designed differently. I had simply accepted it as it was. But it was time to think differently.

Jaron Lanier

“There was a choice to make the Internet more anonymous than it might have been and there are a whole bunch of interesting sociological and, even, religious fantasies that lead into that choice. But this, this, combination of anonymity and, and, social mixing can bring out the worst in people. So, it’s absolutely true that it’s an authentic part of human nature, but it’s not necessarily always the best part, and so it does concern me.” Jaron Lanier during an On Point with Tom Ashbrook interview.

After listening to Lanier say the above quote, I paused the interview and sat quietly. It was one of those moments when you realize that your whole world just changed, that you thought you had it all figured out and learned you didn’t.  I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Internet was anonymous by design or that it could have been designed differently. I had simply accepted it as it was. But it was time to think differently.

Looking at traditional forms of communication, it isn’t impossible, but incredibly hard to voice an opinion without attaching your name to it. Newspapers won’t print anonymous editorials, radio stations don’t have anonymous people as guests, political campaigns can’t advertise without revealing sources of funding, and, in some states, it’s even illegal to hold a street-corner protest while concealing your identity. 

But the Internet is different. It’s very easy to be anonymous.  It takes less than 5 minutes to set-up a random screen name and begin using it to say whatever you want, without fear of someone finding out who you are.  And therein lies the danger. People are much more censured when they know their name is attached to something. When it isn’t, they feel free to say hurtful and untrue things. Once published, the nature of the Internet allows these messages to spread at speeds a viral marketer can only dream of. The amount of damage done by a singe hurtful or untrue comment is immense.

Just recently, the Battle Creek Enquirer along with newspapers across the country, began hiding the public comments section below news stories. When announcing the change in the paper on June 15, 2010, the Enquirer’s Managing Editor, Eric Greene, wrote, “The reason we, and almost every other news outlet in the land, allow online comments is because we want to promote a free exchange of ideas. However, despite our intentions, the online discussions too often are dominated by a few people who, with their behavior, effectively suppress others’ voices. When anyone feels like it’s a waste of their time to speak up, that’s when we know our online forums aren’t living up to expectations.” As a regular online reader, I am glad for the change, but find it disturbing that the newspapers have to hide the comments because of their hateful and abusive nature.

So what is the answer? The truth is, I’m not quite sure.  But I do think a good first step is for all of us to think about this differently, to throw away our assumption that the Internet has to be anonymous, and decide whether we agree with the anonymity or not.  Then we can figure out what we need to do.

For me, the bottom line is, the Internet didn’t have to be as anonymous as it is and I don’t think it’s a good thing.