How We Broke Democracy

Our technology has changed this election, and is now undermining our ability to empathize with each other

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Geographic differences: tiny. Ideological differences: enormous.

How did we get here?

For much of the 20th century and into the 21st, we had a very small handful of channels through which to consume things like the news. (Advance warning: for the sake of brevity, I’m going to gloss over a lot.)

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The Invention of the Private Personal Pipeline

When the internet came along, it was heralded as a new way to democratize this traditional monopoly on The Facts. People generally thought this was a great thing, and a way to expose us to a diverse new range of opinions.

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You Are What You Read

If you are an average American with access to the internet, you consume a big portion of your news through Social Media — 62% of us get news this way. Facebook’s news feed is now the primary driver of traffic to news sites.

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We Prefer Information Ghettos

There is a funny quirk in our nature that psychologists call Confirmation Bias. It’s a real thing, and you can see people fall into it all the time. It is the natural human tendency to interpret new information as confirming our existing beliefs or theories. When we have a choice to read news that confirms our worldview or challenges it — we almost always choose the former, regardless of the evidence.

We insulate ourselves in these ‘information ghettos’ not because we mean to, but because it’s just easier.

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The Problem with Community

But what about community? Facebook (and the internet in general) has done an amazing job at helping people find community. It has given us a way to connect with our best-matching, most specific, perfectly fitting counterparts online. From Furby collectors to exotic mushroom cultivators to the Alt Right, there is a place for everyone.

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Contact Increases Empathy, Insulation Kills It

In social psychology there is a framework called the Contact Hypothesis, which has shown that prejudice is reduced through extended contact with people that have different backgrounds, opinions and cultures than ourselves. Developed by psychologist Gordon Allport as a way to understand discrimination, it is widely seen as one of the most successful tools for reducing prejudice and increasing empathy. It is a measurable and time-tested way of helping people get along.

We must agree on The Facts in order to co-exist

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The precursor to building walls around nations is building walls around ideas

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We need a moment for catharsis. To breathe. To cry. To be relieved, or to be angry.

But we need to also remember this — If we cannot build the tools of our media to encourage empathy and consensus, we will retract further into the toxic divisions that have come to define us today.

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