I’m old enough to remember when the internet was described as the “information superhighway“—a revolution that would put all the whole world at our fingertips. In many ways, the internet has lived up to that promise. I can learn within 10 seconds what the population of Istanbul is, or how many homeruns the Brewers hit in 1985. It has served an important role this year in helping people stay connected who are forced to be distant because of the coronavirus.
But in other ways, it has had unforeseen consequences: the ability to fully isolate one’s self from contrary information. If you are of a different political persuasion that I disagree with, I can block you. If I hold a conspiratorial belief, I can find others who agree with me. Rather than being brought back to reality in isolation, my belief is fed and festers like a cancer.
The manifestation of this problem is what we have seen all year. On the left, it has manifested in violent protests over instances of police brutality that echo chambers have led many to believe are more prevalent than they actually are. On the right, it was seen yesterday in a large group of people who genuinely believe, without much basis in fact, that their country was stolen from them.
This concept was the basis of my dissertation in graduate school. In it, I offered a more hopeful view that preexisting beliefs could be overcome when enough contravening facts are brought to the fore. But what I did not foresee even five short years ago was the power that the internet would have in creating dense echo chambers. I’ve often said that I’m glad I graduated when I did, because the last four years have disproven my premise.
We know in the social sciences that people want to be around those that are like them. This is a natural human tendency. But what we need is to rediscover are the things that can bring us together.
This is the notion of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” where he claims things like a local bowling league serve an important role in society by crossing religious, political and class lines, but united around a common interest. It is also the basis of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons:”
“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”
I have no answers on how to bring this about. I do not believe the answer is any sort of governmental regulation of the internet. Such a move would merely drive those that are voluntarily isolating from reality deeper underground, further inculcating them into an alternative reality.
But I think all of America on all sides could do some soul-searching in an effort to discover a path towards this goal. It is vital for the future of this nation that we rediscover the humanity of those who may disagree with us on one issue or another.
Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The opinions expressed here are solely those of Will Flanders and may not be representative of WILL.