Republicans’ and Democrats’ values are more polarized now than they have been since the Pew Research Center began measuring political polarization. Though part of this is our fault for surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, there may be other factors making us more partisan that aren’t under our control.
“Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides,” according to a June 2012 Pew Research Center survey.
The survey found that Democrats and Republicans are now divided by an average of 18 percentage points regarding 48 value questions concerning government, the environment, business and social issues. With an increase of 8 percentage points since 1987, the Pew Research Center said American values and basic beliefs are “more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”
So what created this political segregation? Part of the problem is our two-party system, which lends itself to polarization.
Additionally, most people tend to befriend people who agree with their political views, often leading to increased narrow-mindedness. A study by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California suggests that some people are taking this a step further by not only befriending like-minded people, but purposely moving to live near people who share their views. The study shows that people increasingly want to live among people who share similar ideologies. The study’s authors concluded that although factors such as jobs, safety and clean air are more important to people when making the decision to move, they noted that “the desire to live near people of the same ideological group” is “relevant.”
But it seems websites such as Facebook and Google are equally, if not more, responsible for the increase in partisanship. These websites use algorithms to filter out the information that they don’t think we are interested in seeing, creating what author Eli Pariser calls “filter bubbles.”
“Your filter bubble is kind of your own personal unique universe of information that you live in online, and what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in, and, more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out,” Pariser said.
In a March 2011 Ted Talk, Pariser talked about how he noticed that his conservative Facebook friends’ posts began to “disappear” from his News Feed. Because Pariser clicked on more of the links posted by his liberal friends than his conservative friends, Facebook filtered the conservative posts out of his News Feed.
Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, demonstrated how Google is filtering search results in his March 2011 Ted Talk by showing screen-shots of what his friends found when they Googled “Egypt” on the same day. Both were Caucasian men located in New York, yet Google gave them very different results.
Pariser said Facebook and Google are using algorithms to act as gatekeepers, making information that we are most likely to agree with the easiest to find. But as Pariser pointed out in his March 2011 Ted Talk, these algorithmic gatekeepers do not have the “embedded ethics” that human gatekeepers did.
The algorithms are different than gatekeepers in that they aren’t preventing us from seeing any information. They are, however, making it more difficult to find different opinions. We all have access to the same information, but sites, such as Google and Facebook, are propelling us all to information that seems to only affirm our views.
In this way, the Internet has made us more politically segregated. The Internet is great for sharing ideas and opinions, but when widely used websites are only showing us what they think we want to see, they are altering our perspectives of reality. Different opinions are out there, but you may have to look a little harder to find them than you should.