- Tech companies built social media networks to connect us and search engines to give us better information about the world, yet Americans are becoming more divided than ever.
- The tech industry isn’t entirely to blame for polarization, but there are influential economic, psychological, technological, and political forces that explain why it has played such a significant role.
- Business Insider asked 11 experts on everything from conspiracies to digital ethnography to psychology to help explain some of the visible and invisible forces at work in our digital lives.
- They revealed that Americans’ online worlds are much more polarized than our offline ones, and that learning more about how the internet works may help us reach some common ground.
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Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of those with opposing views, and our increasingly digital lives are part of the problem.
Between 1975 and 2017, animosity between Democrats and Republicans nearly doubled, according to researchers from Stanford University. And that survey was conducted before most of Donald Trump’s presidency, before the COVID-19 pandemic, before George Floyd’s death, and before the 2020 US presidential election.
But polarization is a complicated topic, and the ways that technology influences our politics and democracy aren’t as simple as we’re often led to believe. There are multiple ways to measure polarization, for example, with each explaining a different way we’re divided. And “filter bubbles” vastly oversimplify the forces that shape how we interact online.
Documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” and “The Great Hack” have awakened many Americans to some of the powerful ways tech companies can, intentionally or unintentionally, influence our behavior in the “real” world. Yet these explain only some of the economic, psychological, technological, and political forces at play.
Of course, the tech industry is only partly to blame — we play a significant role as users, consumers, and citizens as well. But that requires a deeper understanding of how the internet is designed so that we can navigate both our online and offline worlds in ways that humanize others, make us better informed, and help us find common ground.
To pull back the curtain on some of the internet’s invisible hands, Business Insider spoke with 11 experts whose backgrounds include, among other things, ethnography, misinformation, political science, cognitive psychology, media, and mental health.
Here’s what they had to say: