Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Living Outside Our Bubbles

Social media platforms haven’t made us more polarized because they put us in silos, but because they take us out of them.  

A deliberative polity like our own assumes that people can change their minds. The American constitutional system places an emphasis on speech and discussion, and verbal reasoning and rhetoric make up most of what we first think of as political action at every level of our government—from councils and boards to rallies and protests to Congress and the Supreme Court. Citizens are supposed to convince their fellow citizens of what is good for our common civic life. For the system to work, then, people must be willing to acknowledge when they change their minds; they have to admit they were wrong. Ay, there’s the rub. 

Set aside the perennial question of what portion of our population is capable of the kind of reason required by republican self-government, and reflect with me on the fact that apology and confession are habits needed for citizenship in a self-governing republic. To engage in a public discourse we must make cases and explain ourselves, vulnerable to our peers, and be open to conversion. So, let me practice this civic virtue and admit that I have been wrong about something important to public life. I have changed my mind: Social media do not contribute to political extremism by letting us sort into ideological silos; instead, they constantly expose us to people with beliefs and ways of life that appear to us as a threat. 

Back in 2016 and ’17, worries about how siloed public life had become abounded, and social media took much of the blame. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary and then election as president took many of the commentariat and governing class by complete surprise, such surprise that they went looking for an explanation. How had their fellow Americans become such retrograde and deplorable basketcases? Media habits clearly played a role here and Facebook and Twitter came under particular scrutiny. Cambridge Analytica became a bogeyman. It was almost a commonplace to suggest that everyone existed in a social media “bubble,” an echo chamber such that our most extreme political opinions were presented as normal. I worked briefly for a liberal outlet on a project called “Outside Your Bubble,” which was meant to help address this supposed epistemic crisis by exposing readers to alternative interpretations of the news. 

This was, I have come to believe, all bullshit, a just so story like the leopard and his spots, told over and over again to hide from much more mundane reality. Americans do a thorough job of self sorting in real life, without any help from social media. Acela corridor types and coastal city dwellers were surprised by the feelings of flyover country because they still fly over the rural heartland. Cities and small towns remain far apart. Geography and class, far more than the digital frontier, divide and polarize the body politic. The wealthier and more credentialed you are, the more likely it is that you have removed yourself from regular acquaintance with people not like yourself. We live by, spend our time with, date, and marry people of similar background, educational attainment, earning potential, and political persuasion (itself, along with information habits, closely associated with the schools you’ve attended and the sorts of jobs you hold). Our churches, too, mostly look like us; the old observation holds largely true, and not just about race and ethnicity, that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. 

The attempt to blame social media for what class and culture did, however, was not entirely self-serving. Social media have contributed to political polarization. It is the theory of mechanism that is wrong, an attempt to assuage that bit of guilt we all must feel when it occurs to us how many people in our daily life exist as props and set dressing—strangers, foreigners even if our fellow citizens, abstractions we live apart from. We have not been siloed by 24 hour news and digital infotainment, but rather exposed incessantly to the reality of different types of people and alternative ways of living. Our communities and the social order we take for granted become at risk as, thanks to technology, we find ourselves unable to simply live apart from the other. For the other is now here, in our home, in our face, on our screen, all the time.

The human creature is a social one, hence a political animal in the classical conception, which observed that the man who can live apart from his fellows must be either a beast or a god. As a rule, we are desperate for the approval of our peers and the security of the structures of relationship in which we find our identities (identity, a similarity or affinity that tells us who we are). We are status oriented. Normal human beings wish to be liked, to be attractive, to be honored, to conform, to possess a high relational value. Social media expose us to a host of competing status hierarchies and relational frameworks, either inviting us to defect from the one we find ourselves living in day to day and adopt a new one, or forcing us to recognize rivals to the culture that forms our identity. 

All of which is to say, in their totalizing conquest of our world the internet in general and social media in particular really have heightened the stakes of politics and made our discourse more extreme. An individual person can be cosmopolitan, traveling from place to place and adopting and appreciating their mores and modes, being recognized in each. But cultures must fight for survival, force recognition. By overcoming the distances of class and geography that can allow a modus vivendi in a continent-spanning extended republic, and by helping to dissolve the monoculture created by legacy mass media that was already undermining regional character, an ever increasingly online existence facilitated by a few powerful platforms raises the prospect of final victory for some way of life.