Social media has brought some hope of having a democracy in the news space. Trolls from many big media outlets are routinely exposed on Twitter.
It would be naïve to think that the cabal that had a near monopoly over content will facilitate a smoother transition towards democracy.
The fissures have been exposed, yet again, in Munich. The fissures in our society, in our discourse. As the Munich tragedy unfolded, I was following the reactions on social media. There was but one glaring sight— apathy. One group wanted the perpetrators to be Muslim. Another group wanted them to be white men. The objective, for either group was clear. How do we fit this into the narrative that they are building? The victims were, after all, dead. But those of us who are fortunate to be alive must fight the political battles, it seems.
The question I often ask is, why and how did it come to this? Was it always this way? And where do we go from here?
When it comes to the commentary regarding social media and its impact, the idea that is gaining popularity is “increased polarisation”. In recent times, we have arguably moved to a phase where there seems to be irreconcilable differences between people. The chasm in peoples’ views over religion, economic policy and national security is growing. And, if we are to believe the countless articles that have sprung up, the internet, in general, and social media, in particular, are to blame.
I attempt to seek an answer to this via two questions:
One is more to do with the evidence we have so far. That is, is it true that polarisation is increasing?
The second is, perhaps, a more controversial question. Is polarisation good news, at least in the case of India?
The 2014 Clarke Medal, the most prestigious award given in Economics after the Nobel prize, went to Matthew Gentzkow. Gentzkow has recently written an excellent essay called Polarisation in 2016. He talks about the literature regarding the issue of polarisation to inform us on where the evidence stands today. Needless to say that much of the evidence is in the context of U.S. but some broad observations might be true, in the case of India.
The overarching message in the Gentzkow article is that the problem of increasing polarisation is probably not as severe as it is made out to be. However, some aspects of the data are indeed worrying.
What is polarisation, after all? One could argue that a good indicator of polarisation would be the proportion of people who identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. If these numbers are increasing, that signals that people are moving from the center to the extremes. But are they? In the American National Election Study survey, the proportion of people who self-identify themselves as either Democratic or Republican, or as Conservative or Liberal, has been pretty much constant since 1948. If we were to go by the conventional definition of polarisation, this should make us reject the claims of increasing polarisation.
However, it is possible that people lie in surveys of this kind. Another measure would be to look at the voting behavior. There, the picture is markedly different. In a famous book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop shows a remarkable statistic. In1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in landslide constituencies— those that voted overwhelmingly for one candidate. In 2004, this fraction was almost half. While this may be suggestive of increasing polarisation, a counter-argument given by a few scholars is that this could also happen if the candidates running for office become more extreme over a period of time. Apparently, there is some evidence to this effect.
When we dig a bit deeper and see how the self-reported Democrats and Republicans do on various individual policy questions, a different picture starts emerging. Around 2004, we divergence between the “Red” and the “Blue” could be seen.
What the above picture shows is that post-2004, the Democrats and Republicans are drifting apart in how they view various policies. To me, this does not sound like a particularly good development. In a world where people genuinely care about issues, more information provided through the internet, in general, and social media, in particular, should facilitate convergence. So, divergence could possibly mean that people are getting more engulfed in their echo-chambers and there could be a substantial amount of self-reinforcement through social media.
In another paper by Gentzkow and Shapiro, the authors examine how the internet is changing the ideological segregation of the American electorate. Interestingly, they find that the internet is probably not as big a factor as it is made out to be, even in the U.S. The internet accounts for merely eight percent of news consumption time, as per a McKinsey report in 2013. About this paper, Gentzkow says in his essay:
“We find that most Americans do not have highly partisan news diets. Rather, the fact that typical American gets his or her news mainly from sites like Yahoo or CNN shows audiences are representative of the (Internet-using) public at large. Many people do go to extreme sites, of course, but those who do are overwhelmingly heavy Internet users and also political junkies; they consume large amounts of information not only from partisan sources, but also from those in the center and even on the opposite side of the spectrum. True echo chambers are remarkably rare. Someone who got news exclusively from foxnews.com or exclusively from nytimes.com—sites with strongly partisan audiences, but not on the extreme fringe by any stretch—would have a more partisan news diet than 95 percent of Americans.”
So, if we can neither say with certainty that there is increasing polarisation nor we can attribute the traces of divergence to internet, why are we concerned? Well, there is a disturbing observation in some of the evidence we have. The way people view their political opponents has changed remarkably, and for the worse. People were asked how they view the other side. The fraction of people who view the people from the other party as, essentially, “idiots” and their own party-men as “intelligent” has increased astonishingly. So has the proportion of people who think that the people from the other side are selfish.
This, in my opinion, is the most worrisome aspect of the “increasing polarisation” debate. It is largely irrelevant whether the self-identified Congress supporters or Bharatiya Janata Party supporters are growing in number of not.
What is unhealthy for a constructive debate is how one side views the other side. Unfortunately, in the environment of growing mistrust about the other party, there is no space for sympathetic considerations for the other side.
Every opponent is viewed with suspicion. The art of a dialogue has lost all its sheen. Either the disagreements are amplified and taken to the ballot or to the echo-chambers on social media. This does not bode well.
And this takes me to my second question. For a moment, even if we accept the premise that polarisation is growing, is it good news in the Indian context? To give a stark contrast, imagine a country like North Korea. I would suspect that on any serious policy issue there may not be much of a divergence should we ever be able to conduct a survey.
Could it be called a desirable thing? While no parallels can be drawn between India and countries like North Korea, it is an undeniable fact that India has hardly been a diverse democracy when it came to media discourse.
Until very recently, much of public discourse in India, in English, was far from bi-partisan. Arnab Goswami, the man disliked by some journalists as well as those caught in the Radia dealings, delivered an impressive speech a couple of years ago wherein he spoke about how he was disgusted with the brand of journalism that was being practiced in Delhi. Essentially, he was an outcast in Delhi because of his “wrong” political views. This was in 2005!
It is social media that has brought some hope of having a democracy in the news space. Trolls from many big media outlets are routinely exposed on Twitter for their fabrications. It would be naïve to think that the cabal that had a near monopoly over content will facilitate a smoother transition towards democracy.
What we are seeing is a healthy conflict where the monopolists are fighting tooth and nail to halt the democratisation process. The days of some high authorities having a call on dissemination of content are a passe. Just yesterday, WikiLeaks chided Twitter for censorship. The overarching push by the users is unambiguously in one direction: “Do not dictate. We only want absolute freedom of speech and nothing else. We will decide what to believe and what not.”
Insofar as India is concerned, this is a healthy sign. This is a sign of democracy having arrived in the space of content generation. Hopefully, once the dust settles down, we will have a clearer picture about the truth. Isn’t that what many of us are after?