How the information revolution limits political conversation

Your newsfeed or homepage reflects your search history, “likes” and online shopping habits.

‘FACEBOOK HAD done a better job at booting me off social media than Jewish law...’ (photo credit: CHUCK TODD/TNS)
‘FACEBOOK HAD done a better job at booting me off social media than Jewish law...’
(photo credit: CHUCK TODD/TNS)
Consider this: The World Wide Web was introduced about three decades ago. In 1997, less than 2% of the world’s population was connected to the Internet. Today, that proportion has risen to over half, and by 2021 more people will have smartphones than running water.
We are zooming down the information super-highway at full speed, but are grossly under-prepared for the unprecedented all-you-can-eat information buffet that is now being served.
Indeed, the world is undeniably smaller than it has ever been, where everyone has access and everyone is accessible. Furthermore, the barriers to engagements in the digital age are incredibly low.
Users have not only the power to participate in the production of their own social content, they are also encouraged to do so by a very precise algorithm and thereby become active creators of content – “prosumers” if you will.
The amount of user-generated content being produced is mind-boggling. In one second, some 7,700 tweets are sent into the Twittersphere, 796 Instagram photos are uploaded, 1,272 Tumblr blog posts are uploaded and 2,613,436 emails are sent.
Theoretically, one might think that this would lead to true objectivism. Information is out there for the world to see, and to let go of one-sided, self-centered narratives and embrace an eye-opening, prejudice-free complex view of the world. However, this is far from being the case.
In his 1928 book, Self-Restraint vs Self-Indulgence: Relations of the Sexes, Mahatma Gandhi describes what will ultimately become the most accurate description, in my humble opinion, of the behavioral scale in the age of information. Some use the platforms given to them to engage in a self-centered, at times even narcissistic and one-sided conversation, while others use it with great sensitivity and social responsibility.
Naturally, our political conversation is heavily impacted by this new reality in one major way: Despite the amazing new possibilities, the “prosumer” chooses to engage only in worlds they are already a part of or interested in.
This is a well-known scientific phenomenon. People do not turn to mass media to shape new opinions. On the contrary, most people turn to media to seek reinforcement to their preexisting convictions.
In other words, two people can be exposed to the very same political text, opinion, speech, image or argument – but each will draw an entirely different conclusion.
In response, media organizations, in an attempt to survive and consolidate their base, have become even more loyal to their political agenda – more visible, assertive, bold and at times aggressive. This phenomenon takes place especially in the dying world of print, but not exclusively.
It has also taken place within the mainstream media outlets. This transition into the world of “niche media” has occurred within less than a decade, beginning with the rise of the Internet as a massively popular platform in the mid-1990s.
Thus, media organizations have in fact lost the ability to “cross over” – to touch the never-touched-before and gain more influence. This is how we ended up here: a never-ending political cacophony with very little ability to truly influence.
The world of media has turned into a globally proliferated system with countless “niche conversations” where prosumers engage, for the most part, only with other like-minded participants. This very “digital tribalism” severely limits the ability of the media to influence, not to mention their ability to bring about a full conversion of opinion.
This goes way beyond news and opinion. Every tech company designs its analytics so that you only see what you are already interested in. Your newsfeed or homepage reflects your search history, “likes” and online shopping habits.
Just like cable news, where despite myriad options liberals and conservatives actively choose to watch programs that already conform to their own worldview, this new generation’s reliance on new media ensconces themselves in worlds they already know.
The writer is a former Foreign Ministry consul- general in New York and is the founder of Emerson Rigby Ltd., an Israel-based full-service consultancy firm.