Technology is Screwing Us

Our political culture has changed. Many of us now live in a time of outright antagonism and active opposition for what the other side has to say. If they say “black,” we say “white.” In the past, different political philosophies might have been opposing, but that didn’t stop politicians from forging bipartisan compromises for the good of our country.

How did we move from working together to the active hostility that we have today?

At the root of this question is a change in voter attitudes. A lot of the loudest voices are at the political extremes, and many voters are now fully accepting of the more outrageous positions advocated. Even voters who might not support the extreme positions may fail to condemn the extreme political partisanship of today.

Those voter attitudes didn’t change by themselves. They were aided and abetted by fundamental changes in communication technologies.

Just a few decades ago, we had limited media outlets, so our country tended to view the same or similar information. With technological advances, the number of outlets has exploded, meaning that it doesn’t feel like there’s a true “mass media” any longer in the way we used to know it. Now, we have segmented media that serves smaller audiences, with each exposed to a different set of information.

This myriad of outlets provides a combination of too much information: some correct, some correct but biased, some stretched into misinformation, and some outright lies. How can you confidently decipher what is true? Americans no longer receive a common set of facts but instead receive the truth distorted through a strong political ideology of one stripe or another.

The actual culprit to the U.S. losing a consistent national identity is the growth of all the communication channels that lead us to completely separate realities.

Back in the day, the keys to success for the big three national outlets (NBC, CBS, and ABC) were timeliness and accuracy. Even if there was a slant in one case or another, the distinctions between the national television networks were comparatively slight. Each was focused on obtaining a mass national audience. To seek a smaller, targeted audience would not have been commercially viable. Cable television changed all that.

Cable TV was originally developed to service rural areas that were outside the signal range of over-the-air broadcast stations. Initially, they were restricted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in what over-the-air stations they could and could not provide, but this was changed in 1972, and cable TV operators were allowed to provide additional programming.

Ted Turner, a maverick businessman, realized that his underpowered Atlanta TV station could reach a national audience by providing his signal for free via satellite to cable companies nationwide. This first Superstation then led to his creation of CNN, the Cable News Network, in 1980. Today, we have countless news outlet channels — CNN, Fox News, MSNBC — and a multitude of other programming well beyond only the (now) four national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC).

These newer outlets compete for viewers and provide many more entertainment options as well as diverse voices for our news and information. In an effort to differentiate themselves to attract and keep viewers, each news outlet is able to tailor the stories it presents and the slant it provides in its own way.

Instead of competing with highly similar information, the outlets today largely compete by differentiating themselves. For entertainment channels like the topic-specific cable channels of Comedy Central, Sci-Fi, and HGTV, this is fine. Yet the separation of news into outlets that provide “what you want to hear” has put us into our separate silos. In short, technology is screwing us.

The American public no longer hears the same information in a similar way. It hears the same or similar information in drastically different ways.

This is also true for political talk radio, which grew significantly in the 1980s.

Television and radio stations previously had to adhere to a policy by the Federal Communications Commission called the Fairness Doctrine. This required stations to be “fair” by providing competing political points of view. For example, if a political candidate was provided airtime, then their competitor had to be provided equal time. The FCC rescinded the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, finding that it “actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public.” The decision meant that radio and television stations would have fuller First Amendment capabilities to air whatever views they wished without having to provide an alternative point of view.

Three years earlier, a certain talk radio host began broadcasting in Sacramento, California. With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, he decided to offer his show to stations across the country, free of charge. This was a smart move because the Rush Limbaugh radio program has grown to be the highest rated talk radio show in the U.S., aired on almost 600 stations.

Without a Fairness Doctrine, listeners are exposed to the host’s opinions without necessarily hearing the other side. They tend to readily accept the opinions of the host and are less able or willing to weigh the pros and cons of a particular issue.

Satellite radio, now SiriusXM, began operating in the early 2000s and expanded radio channels further. For political talk, separate channels are provided for any and all sides of the political spectrum. For instance, the latest actions of the Trump administration can be reported on in a wide range from outrageous to fantastic, depending on the slant of the media outlet.  We viewers and listeners tend to absorb the details of the story based on how it is presented. Depending on where we get our information, we may have a completely different understanding of the actual events. We’ll tend to gravitate to the channels that reinforce our existing point of view, known as confirmation bias.

Add to this any distortion or omission in the actual facts, or outlets that combine sensationalism, opinion, and news, and you have a vehicle for misleading information and propaganda.

Returning to cable television, this is, of course, true with the three major cable TV news outlets. Fox News will present a conservative viewpoint, MSNBC will have a more liberal slant, and CNN will show the two sides arguing.

 

For all these reasons, we no longer see the same information nor have the opportunity to form compatible opinions. Furthermore, due to the commercial nature of these sources, controversial or even false information can be provided by some outlets as a strategy to get their own slice of viewers. We see different information that is slanted in different ways and in some cases may not even be true. We are taught to be outraged and feel disdain for the viewpoints of others.

The explosive growth of the Internet since the 1990s has expanded the “multiple voices” issue many times over. Google first began in 1996. Facebook and Twitter became available to everyone in 2006. The iPhone, smartphones, and tablets mean that we can access information anytime, anywhere.

In a previous article, I highlighted how Internet algorithms tailor the information we see. For example, when you access YouTube, you are shown a set of videos that have been selected just for you based on what you have previously viewed. Every other person has their own set of information selected by Internet robots. Each of us is influenced in our own customized way.

Is there anything we can do about this, or are we doomed to live in an increasingly polarized country?

We haven’t quite been brainwashed into our political positions, but in some quarters, the effect is about the same. To get out of the silo, we have to be willing to be more discerning, separating the incorrect and misleading information from what is accurate. Even if a commentator says something favorable on your side, it helps to have a good “BS” detector that identifies comments that are nonsensical, sound far-fetched, or are off-topic.

We should be willing to “seek truth” rather than just buying into the point of view that we would like to believe. Additionally, we should be willing to reward the truth-tellers and penalize those that mislead. Sources that provide propaganda rather than objective truth should not be rewarded with continued viewership. Media outlets respond to what their audience wants, so if we stop rewarding less-than-objective information, the media marketplace will respond.

No single political philosophy is always correct. Generally, progress is made by balancing the points of view to determine what is best for our country and our time. So even if your own viewpoint is at the political left or right, take the time to listen to middle-of-the-road outlets rather than the decidedly liberal or conservative ones. Much of politics is opinion, but that opinion should be informed by correct facts that are not misleading.

Fundamentally, the question for voters is whether you care about what is an appropriate balancing of pros and cons, or whether you believe your “truth” is the only proper and correct one. That latter point of view leads to accepting wrong “facts” and misleading information, and that is hurting our country.

As a group, we need to be willing to break out of our silos. Ultimately, it will be up to us voters whether we are able to return to a politics where the two sides are able to work together.