Conflict is Inevitable, Polarisation is Not
The best advice you can get nowadays is to ignore all social media apps on your devices. The rationale is simple. If you want to save yourself from constant anxiety, extreme worry, restlessness, stress and lack of concentration, do not check social media or newspapers first thing in the morning. Even better, don’t check them at all.
Why is that? What changed since the first tweet, the first video uploaded to YouTube and the expansion of Facebook from solely connecting students to connecting everyone on the planet? Except for a few wise voices like Zeynep Tufekci (‘YouTube the Great Radicalizer’), we were in awe of the new social platforms for their capacity to open up society for the better. We celebrated the expansion of democracy, giving voice to the underrepresented, having access to many different voices beyond the realm of established media. The platforms themselves touted such missions like “Bring the world closer together” by Facebook and “Give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” by Twitter. YouTube says it exists “to give everyone a voice and show them the world.”
And now? How come we’re more radicalised and polarised than before? How did these valiant missions end up causing the worst polarisation in history? Just review the shift in the American public’s political values from 1994 to 2017 ran by Pew Research Centre at this link.
Many explanations have been made on why we ended up in ever shrinking social bubbles over time; mostly touching on the biased algorithms that surface the content produced on these platforms and the ad based business models dictating these algorithms, which abuse humanity’s most primitive weaknesses through ‘attention extraction economy’ (Tristan Harris). As a result, there’s an ever growing awareness around this issue popularised by the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, but behind this optimism there’s a bitter reality looming.
Social Media turned into Physical Spheres
Our value as ‘users’ (not ‘customers’) is baked into every algorithm that gives us ‘free content’ and so pushes us into ever extreme ends of our interests and towards more confrontation instead of compromise. Until now, this used to happen on the same platforms where you cozy up in your own little bubbles be it liberal or conservative or within any other contour of belongingness which provides a glimpse into what the ‘other’ thinks about certain subjects every once in a while.
These algorithmic tribes are now creating their own platforms whereby they intentionally close the possibility of any encounters with opposing or challenging views (Gab is one such example ‘...a social media where readers are rarely exposed to content that cuts across ideological lines, but rather are fed with content that reinforces their current political or social views.’ . Another one is Parler.).
At best, this leads to the end of critical thinking, at worst nurturing hubs for extremist world views or outright physical segregation of societies along thought fault lines. We only need to look at history to guess what might come next starting with the rise of fascism during the interwar years in Europe to the complete bifurcation of social life along right and left especially in developing countries (for example Latin America) in the 70s, which sometimes led to physical altercations on the streets. Once we allow the materialisation of ‘us vs them’ on these all so real separate spheres, there’s no turning back without any serious harm.
Intellectual Curiosity as a Cure for Hyper-Polarisation
It is time to repair our world before it’s too late and re-acquaint ourselves with each other with an intellectual appetite and immense curiosity. Here are a few ideas on how to do it.
On an individual level;
Call and meet the person whom you most disagree with and have a long conversation with her/him and be open to change your mind.
Re-discover the art of argumentation and the Socratic method to probe and learn without trying to convince your opponent. Be genuinely interested in seeking truth and facts.
Don’t reward any monochrome social gatherings where only the like minded are represented, don’t be part of those panels or the audience.
Give comfort to everyone who’s in touch with you to open up and safely share their views without you rolling your eyes.
Give voice to people whom you don’t agree with, don’t let them being shut down where you are present and encourage a healthy flow of conversation.
On an institutional level;
Don’t fund any platforms that feed animosity towards opposing views or intentionally raise barriers against people who don’t think like them.
Demand a change in the way social platforms are run. All business models are bound by customers’ willingness to pay, make your company heard.
The above is not an exhaustive list. There are many other ways of re-establishing civil discourse, and the good news is we already know how to do it. After all, Renaissance was the re-discovery of classical Greek philosophy and getting in touch with the science and civilisation of far away lands with an open mind, which ended the stagnant Middle Ages in Europe.
The lasting legacy and spirit of the Renaissance is humanism, where curiosity led to the human being becoming the measure of everything. We need to rediscover that sense of curiosity and openness if we don’t want to let every conflict turn us into polarised societies.