The Internet Didn’t Break It, But It’s Broken

Not that the dedication of Ezra Klein to explaining the universe for the benefit of the unenlightened isn’t appreciated. It is. It’s just that, well, he’s got a slight tilt to his explanations, all of which are meant to suggest that his politics are right and anyone who doesn’t share his (and partner Matty Yglesias‘) strong progressive feelings is a shitlord. Maybe he’s right, but then, some of us are more tolerant of different values.

Yet, Klein offers a post at Vox that raises a curious possibility, given the depth and scope of partisan divisiveness in the nation. Many would attribute the mindless tribalism to the advent of the internet, of social media, allowing echo chambers to create the impression of public discourse when it’s nothing more than confirmation bias on steroids. Is politics broken? If so, who broke it? Common wisdom attributes this to social media. But common wisdom is often wrong.

Here’s something everyone knows: Social media is driving American politics into a ditch of partisanship. Political junkies log on and cocoon themselves in a bubble of friendly punditry, appealing fake news, and outrageous acts from the other side. Every retweet and every like is another moment of identity confirmation, another high five to our friends, another reminder that we’re right and they’re wrong.

The result is, well, this ugly mess — President Donald Trump, red and blue Americas, polls showing we fear and hate the other party more than ever before, conspiracy theories growing like weeds, a polity where agreement is impossible and everyone is angry. Damn you, Facebook! Curse you, Twitter! (Instagram, you’re cool.)

Whether it’s broke or just taking a break from reason and reality may be up for debate, but it’s certainly not healthy and doing a great job of things. But Twitter?

But what if this obvious analysis is wrong? What if social media isn’t driving rising polarization in American politics?

That’s the conclusion of a new paper by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse Shapiro. Their study, released recently through the National Bureau of Economic Research, tests the conventional wisdom about polarization on social media nine ways from Sunday and finds that it’s wrong, or at least badly incomplete.

To conclude that blaming social media is wrong is a stretch too far, but “badly incomplete” may not be. The study broke up the world into young and old, internet-savvy and social media clueless.

[T]hey compare the most web-savvy voters (the young, where 80 percent used social media in 2012) and the least web-savvy voters (the old, where fewer than 20 percent used social media in 2012) on nine different tests of political polarization.

Yes, tons of holes in there, assumptions, gaps, not the least of which is the difference, for which there were no controls, between the capacity of children to grasp the complexities of political issues as compared to “the old,” who may not be smarter but have gained a bit more insight through experience and institutional memory.

The results? On fully eight of the nine measures, “polarization increases more for the old than the young.” If Facebook is the problem, then how come the problem is worst among those who don’t use Facebook?

This is what makes Vox, not to mention Ezra, special. Rather than derive a meaningful conclusion in his zeal to “explain” things to the depth-challenged, he poses a question, knowing that they are too few who will be the first child in the Passover story to matter. So what then gives rise to this phenomenon?

I asked Gentzkow what he thinks might be part of the fuller picture. “I have two main hypotheses,” he replied. “One is stuff that has nothing to do with media at all but is structural, like increasing income inequality. The second is non-digital media, and cable TV and talk radio in particular.”

The latter piece makes particular sense if you think about the fact that older Americans make up the base of both the cable and talk radio audiences. More than a third of talk radio listeners are over age 65, and half of Fox News’s audience is over age 68. As bad as getting your news from Facebook can be, it’s often far better than relying on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.

The competition of credibility between Facebook and Fox News may well prove to be a source of great debate and hilarity, but why, oh why, have they ignored the true source of wisdom?

When he was discussing military strategy or diplomacy, Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, liked to invoke what he called the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.”

Well, the Republicans broke the Supreme Court confirmation process. Now they own the Supreme Court.

Aside from the “you break it, you bought it” rule being around long before Pottery Barn (but that would have ruined Linda Greenhouse’s cool opening quote), what’s her point?

Making an existing Supreme Court vacancy a highly visible part of an electoral strategy stamps the court as an electoral prize, pure and simple. In doing so, it places the court in a position of real institutional peril.

Put it entirely out of your mind that Hillary Clinton promised justices who would bend to her will just as Trump promised justices that would pander to the desires of his constituents. Thinking too hard about Greenhouse’s words will only give you a headache.

Going forward, it will be next to impossible for people to look at decisions that may appear on the Republican Party’s agenda — on voting rights, as a prime example — without seeing the Supreme Court as a partisan tool.

And to the extent people don’t view the Supreme Court as a partisan tool, because its decisions are well-reasoned and grounded in precedent, Greenhouse wants people to believe they are anyway, because that makes the court’s rulings illegitimate.

In the current Supreme Court term, Justice Gorsuch will be eligible to cast votes only in the 13 cases the justices will hear in the two-week argument session that begins on Monday, the final arguments of a fairly quiet term. But issues that lie at the heart of the current political divide are hurtling toward the court.

And the New York Times’ former Supreme Court reporter wants you to know that if the Court doesn’t rule her way, then it’s only because the Republicans are evil and broke it.

Would a Supreme Court decision to uphold the president come across to the public as reasoned judgment, or a rubber stamp?

Would partisan divisiveness be blamed on those crazy fonts of misinformation, Facebook or Fox News? It certainly couldn’t be because the Gray Lady is just as much to blame.

15 thoughts on “The Internet Didn’t Break It, But It’s Broken

  1. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Ms. Greenhouse and the Gray Lady have the same disease that infected the United States Senate (on both sides of the aisle) when it comes to the Supreme Court. True believers see the Court as a partisan tool.

    Long ago, the great Alexander Bickel warned us that this disease could destroy the Court. Like Greenhouse, Bickel too professed at Yale. Ironically, and manifestly, unlike Greenhouse, he put Yale on the map for the serious study of the Court.

    Bickel’s ideas–the Court should employ “passive virtues” and exercise self-restraint regarding its counter-majoritarian powers–have long since become passé at Yale and among the intellectual elite of conservatives and liberals alike. Each side wants the other side to get the “justice” they deserve –and it should be administered good and hard.

    Bickel was right. For the Court, less is always more.

    Infected by their progressivism, just as others are infected by their conservatism, the Gray Lady and Greenhouse are intellectually diseased and disabled when it comes to the Court. You should be ashamed of yourself for picking on the sick and hobbled.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      The only saving grace for my having potantially created a hostile environment at Yale and the New York Times is that I’m in the Second Circuit, not the Third.

  2. KatoSauce

    I can’t hear you over my personal echo chamber. What’s that you said? A plea for calm and reason? But what if you are just part of my echo chamber and I’m hearing a radical centrist argue for the status quo? What if you’re just validating my feelings that the world’s gone mad? Are you part of the problem too, SHG?

    Some of us need the security blanket of echo chambers. How else am I supposed to feel less mediocre? If I want instant validation, I can have it and know where to find it. Oh, and I guess I’m supposed to end everything with a hashtag. #justmillenialthings

    1. SHG Post author

      Somebody responded to my “plea for calm” the other day with “listen to me, not to them.” It’s a good point. What makes me any more rational than anyone else putting something out there on the interwebs? Maybe I’m as full of shit as everyone else?

  3. Patrick Maupin

    “The old can’t be swayed as much by social media because they don’t use it as much” is not a compelling argument. Recent studies show we become more credulous as we age, and, of course, someone weaned on newspapers might not have a good visceral understanding of just how easy it is to publish alternative facts these days.

    Or, to put the inanity of the assertion that frequent internet users must necessarily be swayed more by what they see on it in today’s requisite platitudinous form: Familiarity breeds contempt.

    1. SHG Post author

      My father, at 92, has taken to watching MSNBC at night before bed. He asked me the other day about “that Rachel girl,” because he couldn’t understand why, if Trump and everyone around him had committed all the crimes she says he did, he hadn’t been arrested. I explained to him that Walter Cronkite is dead. He was sad to hear.

  4. phv3773

    A couple of years after Bill Clinton left the White House, I happened upon a TV replay of a talk he had given somewhere. He was asked about the divisive partisanship that he had experienced while in office. His explanation was that we were in the middle of a battle about what we wanted the country to be like. During the post WWII years, there was more consensus about political issues and less partisanship. But, he pointed out, there had been many times in the past when the divisions were just as deep as what he experienced.

    That was not before the internet, but it was before social media was a big thing. I think the explanation still stands..

    1. SHG Post author

      In the earliest days of the nation, partisanship was incredibly vicious. We survived that too. Is it different this time? It might be.

      1. JAV

        And that’s the rub isn’t it? The times might be different, but hard to know until it happens. Maybe the best any of us can do is be a decent human being and not actively try to make it worse. Like the poem goes, “Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”.

        Thank you for referring to that Kipling poem many months ago. It’s one of those little things I felt I a bit poorer for not knowing about earlier.

        1. SHG Post author

          The worst part is that both teams think I’m on the other side because I’m not on their team. I wonder if Kipling would meet me for a beer?

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