Lately my social media feeds have resembled raw sausage links that have been left out in the sun for eight days. They’re packed with rancidness, their casings so swollen that they’re threatening to burst. Since the U.S. government shutdown began, social media appears to me to be more vituperative than at any time since the 2012 presidential election.
|Image: Wikimedia Commons|
Now 99% of the people I meet in person are lovely–friendly, nice, and kind. By the law of averages, about 31% of those people are Democrats, and about 22% are Republicans (Gallup, September 5-8, 2013). It therefore follows that at least 30% of the people I meet in person or online are lovely Democrats and at least 21% of them are lovely Republicans.
So why can’t we just all get along? Why is the internet such a cesspool of political animosity? And why can’t we agree on basic premises, such as: 1) the U.S. government ought to stay open, and 2) the U.S. government ought to pay its bills?
Part of the problem with internet discourse is the internet itself. It was designed to share information among groups of scientists who already knew each other. It has long since outgrown that purpose, and it’s not particularly well designed for the way we use it today. For more on the fundamental defects in the internet, see this post.
But there’s another, even larger problem. Psychologists have been studying political partisanship for some time, and it turns out that rational thought and partisan affiliation generally don’t co-exist in our brains. When self-identified partisans of either party are faced with a question that touches on their political beliefs, the parts of their brains associated with emotion light up under an fMRI scan. The parts of their brain associated with reason are relatively quiet (summary, study). Partisan thought “is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain’s pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected.” Source. Note the second part of that quote–the brain will reward a partisan with a shot of dopamine when s/he rejects unwelcome information, regardless of whether that information is true or not.
More recent research shows the problem to be even worse. Political partisanship is so damaging to the rational parts of our brains that it even impairs our ability to do math (summary, study). And the better you are at math, the more impaired partisanship will make you.
This research has profound implications for our media. If you’re consuming partisan media, you’re paying attention to people who literally can’t think straight. Would you listen to a bunch of newscasters who regularly went on the air so drunk that they couldn’t engage the rational part of their brains? No? Then you should ignore Fox News and MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, The Blaze and The Daily Kos, and pretty much all talk radio.
If you cite or link partisan sources on social media, I’m going to assume that–like the “journalists” you’re citing–you’ve lost part of your capability for rational thought, at least where politics is concerned. And I’ll probably hide your posts. It’s nothing personal–I also hide the posts of drunk people. Well, unless they’re really funny. Then they’re okay.
I know that journalists are people and that all people have biases. That’s why it’s so important to get your news from people who are actively trying to overcome their personal biases. Who are banned by their organizations from partisan political activity. Who are committed to facts, not opinion, whose goal is to inform, not to seek political advantage. I get most of my news from NPR, Reuters, and PBS. I used to visit The Huffington Post occasionally, but I gave that up last year, even before I was aware of the partisanship research, because I noticed a long string of articles with “facts” that, well, weren’t factual (and Huffpo ignored my emails pointing out their errors).
The other change I’m making? I no longer consider myself a Democrat. I’ve always voted split tickets, but 2012 was the first time that I can recall voting for more non-Democrats than Democrats, so this is not a radical change for me. I’m making the change because I value the quality of my thought more than any possible party affiliation. Henceforth, I’m going to identify myself as an Independent. One of the things that gives me hope for the U.S. despite our current mess is that Independents are the largest political affiliation and appear to be growing. If you’re still a Democrat or Republican, I hope that–for the sake of your rationality and your country–you’ll consider joining us.