Could the Internet Be to Blame for Our Political Divide?

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that there is more political division in the world than there has been in a long time, maybe forever. I’ve had a theory about this for quite some time. I think the Internet, and social media may be driving this division.

Now before you accuse me of being a wacko conspiracy theorist, hear me out. I’m not claiming the Internet is some kind of preplanned tool to divide and conquer. However, between new ways of delivering and receiving information, changes in media regulations, and the sheer amount of information available, we have a recipe for division, and even disaster.

The Internet Is a Powerful Tool

In the 15th century, Gutenberg created the movable type printing press. This changed history. After the invention of the press, power structures changed, the masses learned to read, democracy grew in power and scope. The printing press helped to build the foundations of American democracy. It was a good thing, and still is.

For years the press and the media were operated by small groups. One had to seek out work in the media industry. There were limited sources and channels of information. Some of you might remember when we only had three major television networks.

The FCC had something called the Fairness Doctrine. This ensured that media would cover both sides of political issues fairly. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the Fairness Doctrine got canned, radio and television ownership regulations were changed, and soon we began to see media channels like FOX news and conservative AM radio gaining greater audiences.

Then the Internet arrives. Now it’s open season. Essentially, anyone can start a so-called news media, and they can be as politically biased as they want to be.

The Internet is a powerful tool. It could as easily be used to help bring people together as it seems to be being used to divide us. But I think there would need to be more regulations for that to happen. In the current state, division is happening because humans tend to be competitive, closed minded, and they always choose sides. It’s an us against them mentality.

Enter Social Media

Then to make things worse, social media enters the mix. Now everybody can say pretty much whatever the hell they want. It’s like the Wild West of information. Shoot first, worry about casualties later. Add the fact that although we have some of the highest literacy rates in the history of the world, common sense, critical thinking, and media literacy seem to be lacking.

You all know someone who posts absolute shit on the Internet. Some people spread false information at alarming rates. And none of us are immune from screwing up. I know I’ve posted some garbage propaganda on Facebook only to note later that it was false.

Politically, I tend to be a moderate who leans democratic. But we all know people who are extreme in their political beliefs. These people tend to gravitate toward news and information that supports their position. Much of this news from extreme sources is utter garbage. Thus we see the division. I would even argue that both ends of the spectrum have become a bit more radical due to this new way of delivering and receiving information.

The Internet Is to Blame for the Division

There. I said it. The Internet is to blame for the division. I’m not claiming the Internet is the sole reason for the political divide we’re seeing in the world today. Stupid human behavior has a lot to do with it, too. Lack of licensing and regulations for so-called media sources add to the problem. But the Internet is the tool that is being used to spread the bullshit and create the divide. It’s a structural problem, not a conspiratorial issue.

The printing press changed the world. I believe the changes that happened due to the press were good. The Internet has that potential. The Internet could lead us to becoming a more peaceful and united world. But the tools are only as good as the users. Both the creators and consumers of content need to be more honest and critical in order for positive change to happen.

I teach mass media courses. One question I have my students answer is this: Which has created more change in the world: the printing press or the Internet? If I were to answer that question myself, I would clearly choose the printing press.

First, the press created longterm changes in power structures. Without the press, the United States would likely not exist. Second, the Internet is still in its infancy. It clearly has the potential to change the world in greater ways than the press ever did. Unfortunately, at the current moment, I have to wonder if those changes might be leading us to destruction.