Social Media is Not the Problem

I'm seeing a growing number of editorials and opinion articles bemoaning the problem of polarization in social media. It's interesting to watch how these things become part of the zeitgeist. The idea often starts in academia, and then within a year or two it's appearing in niche online publications, and from there it's onto the mainstream press. I'm willing to bet you'll spot an article on this topic in one of your favourite newspapers very soon. For a certain class of concerned liberals it's now an article of faith. The heady dreams of the Arab Spring, when social media and bloggers were going to liberate the world, have apparently given way to daily slinging matches about gun control and paleo diets.

I think complaints of this kind reveal more about the people making them than they do about the world around us. For a start, when you blame hyper-partisanship on social media you're confusing your independent and dependent variables. If you're looking for answers to why political parties in Australia, the US and Europe seem so divided don't blame Facebook.  Blame the incompetence and ideological posturing of the politicians within those parties. Social media doesn't drive change. People drive change. The activists that were there during the Arab Spring say as much

Of course, in some cases the growing popularity of social media may amplify the problem, but it's important to remember that the internet is not just social media - nor is it something available only to the West. The way we access and use information changes all the time. Last year, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian blogger who spent six years in jail, mourned that the internet he knew and loved in 2011 no longer existed upon his release. But the internet is constantly evolving (it always has). People no longer only get their information from the blogosphere, Twitter or Facebook. For every one person posting a rant about the latest Donald Trump tweet, three others are quietly browsing a free science research paper, downloading an app to help dodge the morality police in Iran, or using Whatsapp to organize a rally for #BlackLivesMatter or #LetThemStay. 

The internet isn't the cause of political polarization. People are the cause of political polarization. But it's also people, plus the internet, that might eventually help solve it.