If there are two things Americans learned this election cycle, it’s that few Americans trust the news media and people are more divided along political lines than many realized.
Political polarization is growing in America. A 2014 Pew Research Center analysis of political ideologies found that the number of Americans who identify as consistently conservative or liberal doubled from 10 to 20 percent between 1994 and 2014. That means that Americans share less ideological common ground. Animosity between parties has also grown, with 36 percent of Republicans identifying Democrats as a threat to national well-being and 27 percent of Democrats seeing Republicans in that light.
How do American citizens heal the rifts that have so bitterly divided many of us? There are a lot of answers, but one that nearly anyone can enact immediately is to burst the so-called “filter bubble” — that is, the personalization of search results and media that can result in internet users having their worldview reinforced rather than challenged.
Here are some steps anyone can take to reduce digital tunnel vision and polarization in their own lives.
1. Diversify your media diet
Pew also found in its 2014 study that certain media habits correlated with political identity and polarization. Consistent liberals consumed news from a variety of sources they expressed general trust in, while 47 percent of conservatives reported relying on Fox News alone for their political news. The study also found that liberals were more likely to block or “unfriend” people they disagreed with on social media, while conservatives were more likely to have friends who shared their opinions.
That’s problematic because a core tenet of democracy is to work through differences by challenging opposing opinions and ideas.
Diversifying the kind of news and information someone consumes helps in understanding the other side’s point of view. Listening only to passionate pundits furthering conspiracy theories rather than facts can also lead to an “us vs. them” attitude — something MIT Technology Review called an “insidious problem.”
For liberals and conservatives alike, being well-informed means seeking out and reading respectable publications from both sides of the political spectrum, according to the Review, because it leaves more opportunity for people to connect even when they disagree.
"Connecting people is important when they share similar interests but arguably even more so when their views clash," the review stated.
2. Don’t rely solely on social media or search engines
Getting personalized recommendations online may be convenient, but it’s not ideal when it comes to news and media. The key to being informed is understanding an issue well from multiple viewpoints. That’s where relying just on social media and online algorithms for news can become a problem, Obama administration social media adviser Caleb Gardner told students at Northwestern University this fall.
Gardner argued that because social media isn't dedicated to balancing news feeds with varying points of view and instead tailors news to users based on what they like, it's dangerous if it's the only source of news. The most obvious reason is that the news items found on social media are often fake, which can confuse users about what the facts actually are.
“If that doesn’t frigten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are,” he said
That has many leaders, including European authorities, worried about the future of political debate. “This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” German chancellor Angela Merkel told an international media conference in Munich this fall. “The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users].”
Social media is particularly fraught because of the complexity of news feeds. Even if users are friends of people of differing opinions, that’s no guarantee of being exposed to opposing view points, as what appears in a user’s news feed is determined by engagement. So if users haven’t “liked” or commented on something in awhile on someone’s profile, that person will eventually disappear from their news feed.
And while 44 percent of Americans get their news via Facebook, the news items found there are often fabricated and incentivized to go viral, something Facebook has come under serious scrutiny for in recent months.
3. Humanize your conversations
Quartz magazine recently spoke to Dian Killian, a collaborative communications consultant, about scientifically proven methods to help people converse effectively across ideological divides.
Called the “Rosenberg method” after the civil rights-era psychologist who invented it, the main goal is to make sure both parties feel that they’ve been heard and respected, even if the two sides disagree vehemently.
The key ingredient is empathy — seeing the person with a different opinion as a person first, rather than a problem to be corrected.
Using emotional phrases in conversations or in online exchanges such as, “I hear you …” or “I feel like …” or asking, “Why do you feel this way?” helps people to feel they’re having a conversation rather than an argument. Killian told Quartz that leaves people with a positive exchange that makes it hard to demonize people of different viewpoints.
As she put it, “I wouldn’t expect someone who’s been injured to hear my side until they felt that I had fully understood the depth of their pain.”
4. Take the conversation offline
Limiting political conversations and interactions to social media gives users more chances to see people out of their true context.
For those more focused on eliminating polarization in their own lives, some nonprofit groups like Village Square and Living Room Conversations are specifically dedicated to bringing people of different viewpoints together in real life to reach a deeper understanding of one another.
You never know who you’ll meet, and you might just find you have more in common than you thought with someone of a different political or ideological persuasion.