Listen to ‘The Other Side’

Glenwood Springs Post Independent, May 22nd, 2017.

“It may make your blood boil and your mind may not be changed, but the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.”

This quote from a recently former president re-introduces an issue that is not new but which has become increasingly urgent. It is no longer optional to dismiss “the other side” politically as worthless, ignorant, selfish/bleeding heart, fascists/snowflakes. Too much is riding now on our ability to find common ground.

As the division of our country runs deeper with every headline, partisanship is constant and unapologetic, and patience wears thin around dinner tables and on social media, many have abandoned all hope of ever understanding the other guys, choosing instead to further isolate themselves from the aggravation. And I can relate. Most of us are worn out from the daily, bullheaded conflict.

But we need to give it one more shot. Or 10 more. Or 50. Whatever it takes. And today I’d like to suggest that maybe our collective failure so far isn’t entirely the fault of willfully ignorant individuals, but rather stems from a systemic and pervasive trend that has deeply distorted our perception of reality.

It is past time we each became aware of, and closely examined, our own personal filter bubbles, because if we can’t even see “the other side,” we can’t possibly hope to understand them.

“Filter bubble” is the term commonly used to explain the manner in which the information we absorb is colored, or filtered, by a huge number of variables, of which we may or may not be conscious. For much of America’s history, a person’s filter bubble was only as deep as the people elected to their social circle, the newspapers they chose to pick up, as well as their geographic location, rural, urban, etc.

Now, I am not overly given to wallowing in nostalgia, and am well aware that these were not simpler times, and the reality of media bias and propaganda was absolutely present. However, those variables were all concrete, identifiable and often chosen consciously by the individual. I am also aware that having some level of filter bubble is essential to the well-being of social creatures such as ourselves. It would exhausting and demoralizing to be surrounded by opposition and judgment on all sides.

However, as our society’s flow of information and media has increased exponentially in speed and complexity in my generation alone, many unexamined, unconscious filters have been added to our life. And if we are ever to understand how “those guys” can possibly believe the ridiculous things they do, we have to slow down and look at the factors which control our own perception of reality.

The basic factors are still largely congruent with past generations: social circles, location, and media stream. These are the things we control, the things of which we are aware. But the enormous weight and constant presence of today’s media stream is where we find the greatest, and most insidious, effects of today’s filter bubble.

The sacred belief of many of my generation that the Internet will provide all the information anyone could need about any topic under the sun is at the heart of the problem. Even the very tech-savvy forget that the information we receive from most major search engines and nearly all social media is not, in fact, an unbiased representation of all the facts.

In order to increase profit and encourage repeat customers, Internet giants such as Google employ complex algorithms that analyze our preferences, click and read habits, and favorite news sources. So when we search for “Middle East arms deal” for example, we will most likely see only search results informed by our Internet habits.

Most of these results will immediately link us to pages we have been to before, whether we prefer FoxNews, MSN or CNN, etc. And as soon as we are on that website, we are confronted with headlines which make us nod our heads, skim for confirmation bias and move on, further exasperated and exhausted by ignorance of the other half of America. Conflicting viewpoints will be banished to the lonely wasteland of the second page of search results.

The same thing, is, of course, happening on every Facebook or Twitter feed. There may be some rare people who have not unfriended anyone over political opinions, but if he or she has never clicked on links or photos shared by contacts with whom they disagree, those opposing voices will appear less and less on their feed. This nifty trick allows us the unrealistic perception that everyone we know agrees with us, simply because for-profit corporations understand that we are far more likely to use their services if we only see things we like.

Again, this matters because of the misperception that we are always getting the whole picture when we search for information. It’s the Internet. It has everything, right? But if you take the time today, please, to look at several conflicting news sources, say Fox and CNN, you will see that not only are they offering a different perspective on the same issues, they are not even talking about the same events.

They can tailor reality for their readers so completely, that it is like reading about two different countries. Neither political user, still uncomfortable and defensive about their ideals, needs to be confronted with any contradictory information. And if an individual chooses to search outside those news sources, he or she will most likely be confronted with yet more bias confirming sources because Google knows which type of content they prefer.

So what is there to do? Well, first we have to believe that, as stated above, in order for democracy to work, we all must listen to opposing viewpoints. The best way to do it is face to face, listening to the voice of another human being explain why they think what they do. Again, ask questions, listen and avoid the “J Word.”

In order to scrape off a few layers off your online filter bubble, you can do a few things: Set your browsing history, or cookies, to be cleared every time you log off, and change your privacy settings to limit as much as possible the amount of browsing data that can be sold to other companies. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your high school-age relative. Then actively search information from news sources to which you do not normally see. Spend some time on those pages and read what they have to say.

Actively participating in our beautiful, infuriating, democratic republic is still an essential part of citizenship, but it does not look like it did in previous generations. If it is to last another one, we must all adapt to new skills, new conversations and a quickly changing reality.

Lindsay DeFrates of Carbondale writes a monthly column.

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