A digital disconnect

Deena Baum | Daily Trojan

America’s universities suffer from cognitive dissonance. We prop up institutions of higher education as harmonious laboratories of dialogue and marketplaces of ideas, but in reality, campuses remain divisive and polarizing.
Sadly, the worst is yet to come. A 2016 Freshman Survey by the UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that freshmen already arrive to campus more polarized than they’ve been in more than four decades.

So why do we see this disconnect between expectations for our higher education and its reality?

It might be because so many of our interactions now happen online. Assuming most of today’s college students are millennials, data shows that they spend nearly nine hours a day consuming social media; and thanks to ideologically consistent friends and well-curated newsfeeds, a University of Michigan study found that social media users read stories that “largely fit their worldview and rarely challenge their beliefs or broaden their perspectives,” further entrenching them in opposing camps. In fact, according to Facebook data reported by the Brookings Institution, each user “has five politically like-minded friends for every one friend on the other side of the spectrum.” And so digital addiction stemming from overexposure to newsfeeds has created not only emotional consequences, but also political ones.

More insidious is research from Facebook data scientists, which indicates that users clicking on partisan links increases the chances of them seeing similar stories with similar slants in the future. As a result, this algorithm cements a cycle of confirmation bias and online bubbles.

“[U]ser choice decreases the likelihood of clicking on a cross-cutting link by 17 percent for conservatives and 6 percent for liberals,” the Brookings Institute wrote of the research.

That means that our choices, coupled with the Facebook algorithm, reduce the likelihood of us encountering and engaging with opinions other than our own.

That means that our choices, coupled with the Facebook algorithm, reduce the likelihood of us encountering and engaging with opinions other than our own.

On campus, the digital revolution has never made it easier to disconnect and disengage with perspectives that we find distasteful, whether that be through unfriending political opponents or restricting our news feed to sources consistent with our convictions. Sometimes, such restrictions manifest subtly. Every time we “like” a partisan news source on Facebook, its stories are more likely to show up on our newsfeeds — at the expense of other, more balanced sources.

Students enter a vicious cycle in which the divisions of the digital world spill over into in the real world, but when confronted with differing opinions or harsh rhetoric, students retreat from reality back into their online echo chambers.

When this online polarization shifts to the offline world, it sets students up for failure upon arrival in the classroom. In fact, a Washington Post poll indicates that more than half of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters don’t know anyone who voted for the other candidate.

We held high hopes for the power of the digital to transform politics.

Pundits dubbed former President  Barack Obama’s 2008’s victory over Sen. John McCain as the first “Facebook Election,” with social media playing a major role in democratizing access to candidates and their platforms. And greater online democratization of political information soon followed, with tweets, commentaries, impassioned wars of words and opinion articles flooding America coast to coast. Soon, everyone became a consumer and contributor to the vast dialogue, with two-thirds of adults receiving news from social media and “collectively, the weekly readership of the top dozen political blogs rivaling that of Time, Newsweek, or The New York Times.” For the first time in history, anyone and everyone, at any time, anywhere could participate in the grand experiment of ready access to any and all commentary and information.

But now, instead of tearing down barriers, we’ve created new ones. And instead of forming the well-educated citizenry dreamed of during America’s birth, greater access to information anytime, anywhere has rendered us more divided and misinformed.

Online polarization and fake news often go hand in hand, with a proliferation of slanted, and even false, journalism heavily contributing to both online and offline entrenchment of political ideologies.

A BuzzFeed study analyzed three large rightwing political Facebook pages and found 38 percent of their posts to include “false or misleading information,” while three large leftwing political pages hardly fared much better, with 19 percent of posts flagged as ones classified as fake, or at least deceptive, news. Yet these findings hardly scratch the surface of this credibility crisis, with the dissemination and proliferation of online forums such as Reddit and 4chan providing platforms for trolls to freely wield power and distort opinions and facts.

For example, in the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas, online discussions rapidly came to life, claiming the official death count and identity of the shooter to be fabricated and falsely accusing various groups, such as the anti-Trump antifa (short for antifascist) for the attack itself. These forums, though laboratories of discourse, albeit with little moderation and reputability, often divert dialogue toward fringe and unfounded opinions.

But now, instead of tearing down barriers, we’ve created new ones.

Despite its label as the technologically literate generation less susceptible to the sirens of misinformation, millennials often pose as some of the biggest victims of this war between fact and falsehood. In 2016, Stanford researchers conducted a study to discern the ability of the younger generations to identify information sources and they classified the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and “[a] threat to democracy.” Among their findings: “Most middle school students can’t tell native ads from articles,” “Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook,” “Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group,” and “Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source.” For a generation now the largest in the nation, the future of political awareness and engagement looks bleak.

Collectively, this toxic mixture of overconsumption of heavily ideological media and our inability to discern fact from fiction takes a toll on our ability to engage in political dialogue. According to Pew Research Center, the number of consistently conservative or liberal Americans has more than doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent. And polarization often morphs into outright hostility, with highly negative views of the opposite party more than doubling since 1994.

To escape these bubbles we must first disconnect — from the echo chambers we’ve taken refuge in, from the divisive dialogue we consume and participate in and from the sensationalism we live and breathe. This takes the form of engagement of those of differing political beliefs, consumption of media from both sides of the ideological aisle and casting a critical eye toward information and sources whose validity we take for granted.

At some point, we must physically disconnect ourselves from the digital world as well — to engage in substantial discussion without repeating online soundbites, to bridge the gap between the perceptions we’ve been fed and reality and to form our own opinions based on factual, reputable sources. The fate of our discourse and our democracy depends on it.