Monday, March 4, 2013

Politics, Cyberbalkanization and The Generation Gap

We live in a strange era where people seem entitled to their own facts.

In the last blog post, I talked about the pros and cons of online discourse. To recap, I was primarily arguing that internet arguments are better than traditional arguments. This comes from how written arguments have a greater capacity for thoughtful expression, and how online resources permit anyone to establish authority with citations and references.

But I ended with a bit of a cliffhanger: What happens when someone accustomed to online argumentation encounters someone accustomed to offline argumentation? What changes? What gets lost in translation?

More importantly, is it a big deal?

Today, I'll argue that the answer to that last question is yes. So much of a big deal, in fact, that it determined the 2012 election.

American politics are incredibly polarized - more polarized than they've been in a very long time. In any large enough society, you can expect a breadth in experiences where there would be some lines of philosophical division, but the past few years have been particularly divisive.

When did this begin? This article gives us one person's estimate:
ANDREW KOHUT: Almost all of the increase that we see occurred not gradually over the past 25 years, but in the past 10 years, that is to say during the administrations of George W. Bush and now Barack Obama. 
By the middle of his first term, most Democrats strongly disapproved of George W. Bush. And almost from the get-go, most Republicans have strongly disapproved of Barack Obama. So part of it Is response to these presidencies and the political culture. Part of it, too, is the way the parties have changed. The parties have become smaller than they once were. We have a record number of political independents.
Have politics in the past ten years been significantly different than politics in the previous century? My completely unqualified and unprofessional gut would probably say "not really", but I'm no historian.

If you were to ask me what the biggest change in the past ten years has been, I'd say the role of the Internet in our lives. Perhaps, more broadly speaking, the way we consume media has been radically altered. And if it affects society, then it affects how we do politics.

The landscape of our traditional media is different. Television stations like MSNBC and FOX essentially openly display their political affiliations - and it seems as much an admission of bias as it is an invitation for like-minded individuals to tune in. Any media source that tries to strike a middle ground ends up seeming impotent, since the "moderate" strategy tends to be mindlessly presenting both sides and then offering very little critical discussion.

But, things like radio and television are old-world. The internet has turned political discourse on its head. Nowadays, we have committed fact-checking websites that compile political statements, cite their material, and compare actions to words. News websites are widely available online, giving us ease of access and ease of cross-checking.

Click to enlarge. With Google, even YOU can be an investigative journalist!

The internet-savvy are empowered with access to databases of information (facts, statistics, etc), the navigational know-how to use it, and the skepticism needed to scrutinize it. You would think that, with this much information in hand, conversations about politics would be more streamlined, more information-based, and generally more...productive.

This is clearly not what we are seeing. Why?

Because too many people - particularly older people - are using the internet incorrectly. I postulate to you, dear reader, that our political tensions today are rooted in the older generations' inability, disinterest, and/or dismissing attitudes towards the online.

"Wait! Aren't I making an assumption by saying that our main political divides are across generation lines?"

Yes, I am. I do acknowledge that even among their own generation, people will find reason to disagree with one another. However, let's look at this 2011 age-politics assessment by Pew research center. Or this 2009 Gallup assessment on party preference and age. Or OkCupid's statistical analysis of its entire userbase and political affiliation, including relationships with age. Or this 2012 assessment by the Public Religion Research institute pointing towards a trend with younger people and political affiliation. A greater proportion of the younger generations are liberal. A greater proportion of the older generations are conservative.

"Wait! What do we even know about how older people use the internet?"

In order for my thesis about the generation gap, internet use, and the lack of communication to make any sense, I need to demonstrate to you that older generations don't use the internet in the same way as younger generations.

The Pew Research Center has found quite the disparity in age groups and internet usage, with 94% of people ages 18-29 using the internet, while 54% at 65+ claim the same. What's more, when they looked at demographics for teen internet users, the numbers were even higher - 92% of 12-13 year olds, and 97% of 14-17 year olds use the internet.

The office for national statistics in the UK report that, within their country, nearly 99% of people aged 16-24 had ever used the internet - with a vast majority doing so in the last three months - while less than 30% of adults 75 and up could say the same. Canada's statistics center reports numbers similar to Pew's data - with 82.9% of those 34 and under using the internet at least once a day at home and about 65.6% of those 65+ saying the same.

Surprise surprise - the internet primarily represents the young.

But, we can do ourselves one better than just "Who uses the internet more?" Let's ask ourselves, "What do we tend to do online?"

Like we did when we discussed gender, we can use Alexa to discuss age demographics. For an assessment on Alexa's usefulness, please consult the blog post on gender and the internet, where I talk about its worth as a source.

Yahoo? AOL? What is this, the nineties? ...Oh. Oh I see.

A cursory view through some of Alexa's top-ranked pages shows us that older people are a little more business-oriented when it comes to online usage. Facebook isn't as popular, but LinkedIn is. YouTube is somewhat hit and miss, but Yahoo, AOL, and MSN (perhaps for their news, their email services, their finance sections, or for hilariously inept search attempts) can get the older crowd. It's also worth noting that sites like Yahoo and AOL have had a longer online presence, dating back to the 90s. This may partially explain why older generations are more familiar with them - the websites were simply around when the internet was first brought to their attention.

Speaking of news sites, what's the age breakdown for online news source viewership?

Just a selection.

Overall, it seems that, when most older people DO go online, they read some kind of news outlet. Remember, the age bars depict how well-represented each age group is per website. The huge bars that you see for Breitbart and National Review for the older people tell you that a lot of online older people go on Breitbart and National Review. The contrast between the youth's under-representation and the older generation's over-representation is not so straightforward when you remember that there are a lot more young people online than there are old people.

Notice, however, that the older generation has a much larger presence on news sites where the younger generation seems relatively absent. Granted, young people don't read news as much as old people do, but with BBC, The Guardian, and Huffington Post, there is a far more noticeable youthful presence.

It's possible that entire portions of the population are reading completely different news outlets. Age is clearly a factor here. But, again, age correlates to political affiliation and - surprise, surprise - our more conservative newsreaders flock to the conservative media outlets. The young, liberal people that do read the news tend to read the more liberal media outlets.

But, news websites are a pretty old-world style of media, despite being online. Information only goes one way - from the journalist to the reader. What happens when we look at places online where people actually talk to one another?

Hey, the adults are gone!

The Internet is a medium where lots of people can discuss and exchange ideas with each other, and sites like these are responsible for a lot of that interaction. Those discussions and exchanges of ideas have a heavy hand to play in how people shape their ideas. And it's predominantly young people interacting with other young people. And we've already pointed out what sort of affiliations that young people have in common.

Don't they have a name for that sort of thing? When a group of people, already in a common mindset, find themselves surrounded only by people in said group? And they only primarily hear each other's opinions, which offer little variation from each other?

Oh yeah. They call that an echo chamber. It's what happens when there's a severe lack of diversity in opinion, due to a severe lack of diversity in user base. You have a whole subset of the population constantly talking to one another. They're correlated by their age group, which is in turn correlated with general political affiliation. And, for the most part, they're all exposed to the same news sources.

The result of this is so evident that it was capitalized on during the campaign. President Obama posted an ask me anything thread on reddit, where he (or some other representative staff, perhaps) would field questions asked on the public forum. Considering the demographics that we know go on reddit, Obama probably didn't have to try very hard to be met with enthusiasm. It was a good way to fuel support from a user base that already loved him.
I mean, this is the same site that devoted a whole meme to the guy.

But, wait. Before anyone above the age of 35 gives themselves a pat on the back for avoiding the online echo chamber, they should probably know that the older generations do the exact same thing.

In fact, they're even worse about it.

"The encyclopedia that anyone can edit has too much liberal bias. So we made an encyclopedia that only we can edit."

To the left, you see Wikipedia, where older people are about as absent as they are from Facebook. To the right, you see Conservapedia, the encyclopedia founded specifically because its founder felt that there was too much leftist, anti-Christian bias in Wikipedia. Many news outlets have given their two cents on the subject. You'll notice, magically, that the presence of older people has suddenly re-appeared on Conservapedia.

"But wait! Look at that 18-24 presence! Doesn't that shoot down the idea that the older generations are isolated from the younger generations?"

Not quite.

Conservapedia attracts lots of attention from younger people out of sheer humor. Cracked has lampooned it, multiple times.  SomethingAwful has an ongoing thread where people re-post the most outlandish bits of Conservapedia. Many other younger people have also thrown in their two cents on the ridiculous nature of the site. It's also been subject to the kind of grassroots protest that you see very often online by younger people - vandalism and hacking for humor. This means that a lot of young people online regularly go on conservapedia just to laugh at conservapedia.

Despite this large attention from ironic young people, there is still, very evidently, a large older presence on the website, whose beliefs are presumably cut from the same cloth as the beliefs of the site's original creator.

More importantly, notice this: The older presence isn't found on the younger folk's sites, but the younger presence, though only visiting ironically, can be found on the older folk's site. This means that, despite young people's vehement disagreement with conservapedia's intention and content, they're still exposed to its message.

The fact that the older generation is completely absent from the discussions and musings of the younger generation is far more telling of the older generation's attitudes. They have isolated themselves, and they are likely out of touch.

If you're not content with that, check out Tea Party Community. It is a social networking site meant to be an alternative to Facebook, because it was felt that there was too much bias against conservatism on Facebook. It is a social networking site for a very specific demographic - and if you disagree with that demographic, you can and will be banned.

How, exactly, can a social networking website like Facebook foster bias against conservatism? Well, actually, it doesn't at all. This is just a group of people who are upset about the vehement disagreement that they are met with. So, their response is to isolate themselves. Interesting pattern emerging here, huh?

And it doesn't stop there. There ARE, in fact, forums and social hubs with primary older people. Check out Rapture Ready, a site devoted to those waiting patiently for the end times. Then, there's Free Republic, an extensive forum that is meant for grassroots conservatism. And what are the demographics for all of these sites?

Ahh, there's the old people.

This is cyberbalkanization. This is what happens when people build echo chambers for themselves and decide that they don't want to be part of the unwashed masses.

"Wait! There are left-leaning equivalents of this! What about democratic underground and rationalwiki?"

First of all, rationalwiki was created as a deliberate response to conservapedia. That sort of destroys the notion that isolation was the novel idea of a group of close-minded leftists somewhere in the online ether.

Democratic Underground (DU), however, is a different beast. It was created on the day of George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration, in reaction to frustrations following the 2000 vote recount. It was an echo chamber created with much of the same spirit as Free Republic. However, DU's moderation policy is not to ban people based on disagreeable beliefs. There are expectations of civility, but you are able to disagree with others (see: pg 76 of the following pdf for further details - and I must say, it pleases me that people write doctoral theses about the internet now).

Therefore, while DU is primarily most welcoming to fellow liberals and democrats, it does not shut down dissenting opinion - though its members may offer harsh criticism. Free Republic, however, is open to banning those with dissenting opinion (see: pgs 67-69 of the previously mentioned pdf).

I reiterate - we see the older conservative userbase falling prey to the echo chamber effect, as well as resorting to isolationism online. This is cyberbalkanization.

Here's an attempt at painting a narrative for how the internet has affected political discourse.

Young millenials were growing up with the internet through the 00s. Some of these young people find information outlets online, and share what they learn with other young people, who are also online. These young people can talk amongst themselves like never before, sharing things they've heard to one another on a medium not yet tamed or regulated. No longer were people confined to the teachings and standards of their locals; they can now learn about the experiences of online users from all over the world.

Also, consider that the '00s were also mostly marked by an unpopular war with a polarizing president. The younger generations could hear stories from people all over the country about how the war and the president was impacting them. This continued from the Bush years through to the Obama years - but again, remember that by Obama's election, Bush had an established negative legacy online.

And, yes, this does introduce the pitfall of only speaking to people that already fit a similar demographic. But it also leaves the participating generation incredibly well-informed. Today's 20 year old is capable of being more well-read than the 20 year old of the 1990s, and they've probably gotten to interact with more people, too.

Meanwhile, the older, more conservative generations were slower to pick up on the internet's capabilities for information and social activity.

They keep with the television, the radio, and only venture online to look at articles from news sources that they're already familiar with. They've probably interacted with lots of people in their life, but the scope of their interactions is limited to their environment - as has been the case for many a previous generation. This makes for a narrower point of view.

A lot of the young, left-leaning people started departing from television and radio for the internet. This would imply that, over the past few years, a greater portion of the tv/radio news audience has been older, conservative generations. There starts being a disproportionate demand for like-minded conservative news in television and radio, which doesn't meet a particularly strong opposition from people who go online for their news. After all, why would the internet-goers care? They have the internet as their information source, and it's better at informing them than tv or radio could be. If they DO watch TV, they probably watch it online.

Now, the old people also have their echo chamber - it's just mostly offline. Interesting, how an openly conservative station like FOX news has managed to stay #1 in news rankings for over ten years. Interesting, how those ten years also coincide with the rise of mainstream internet. Interesting, when one considers that television news audience has likely grown more homogeneous in the past ten years, coinciding with the rise of the internet.

And, of course, since Obama took office in 2008, there's been a bolstered surge in conservative media, along with a surge in conservative-pandering polls. It's already expected that everyone cries louder when the opposing team is in office.  But, if your audience is already eating up Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, why not throw them a Glenn Beck? Feed the fire. Mass media is a business, after all - it brings in more ratings if you give your audience what they want. Never you mind how it impacts the greater political discourse.

But, it's not like these older, more conservative people didn't find their way online eventually. They certainly did go online - and they were confronted with a group of very different-minded people. Perhaps there were some attempts for them to engage with the younger population, but they were likely met with objection, criticism, and mockery. It would have been a collision of echo chambers - they might as well have been speaking different languages to one another.

These older people had no idea what they were getting into when they came online. Passionate rhetoric doesn't work on the internet - you need facts. You need sources. Younger people knew where to look for information online, while older people likely did not know where to look, or think to even look for sources. If sources did come from the older crowd, it was likely torn down quickly by criticism and counter-argument. Older people will attempt to speak from their experience, but will be laughed out of the conversation - because the younger people's breadth of online interactions trump the experience of any one individual. These older people were outnumbered and outflanked - there were simply too many people unwilling to put up with their shit.

This is what happens when someone accustomed to online argumentation encounters someone accustomed to offline argumentation. The encounter happened online, and the older conservative generations were absolutely overwhelmed.

Pictured: A conservative on reddit.

Naturally, the argumentative aggression towards these conservatives were probably quite off-putting. So, what would the response be?

The older folks started making their own hubs online, separate from everyone else. Having confronted a whole swathe of people who didn't buy into the conservative feedback loop fed by the old media, these older people decided that they wanted to continue disengaging from the conversation. If people start getting too disagreeable in these conservative, older social hubs, they can get kicked out.

Note the difference. They aren't met with argument until they leave. They're kicked out. This is a very different way to conduct your community. It's also a more dangerous one.

This backwards-minded mentality towards making online communities invites even further ridicule from young people. Things like Conservapedia are ridiculous, and young people are proficient enough online where they can say something about it. They go over to these conservative hubs and take the argument there. This ends up re-enforcing the older people's beliefs that enforcement of their backwards rules are necessary. This in turn re-enforces the younger people's beliefs that the older people are close-minded and ignorant.

The young paint a caricature out of the older generation, but the older generation doesn't do enough to thwart that caricature. In fact, oftentimes the older generation ends up becoming the caricature.

Both sides of politics have a bad tendency to pat themselves on the back to re-enforce their own beliefs. But the younger people meet the opposition with mockery, while the older people meet the opposition by burying their heads in the sand.

People are capable of knowing so much in this day and age, and yet are completely disconnected from the other side of the argument. Nobody has to talk to each other, and nobody wants to. The Internet is so wide open and free that those who disagree can simply pick up and go somewhere else.

The freedom to ignore one another has become the method to enslave yourself to ignorance.

And, suddenly, we get to 2012 - a presidential election year where the opposing attitudes can painfully be outlined by the online political landscape. If you were on team Obama, you were probably aware of five thirty eight, a blog that focused around Nate Silver's poll aggregation methods that ultimately predicted the election. Young people were very fervently discussing the election season online - they were very informed through the entire process. They were able to use the online medium to reach other people. Romney's 47% comments were found online, and you can bet that the online circles made sure that everyone was aware of it.

And if you were on team Romney, you probably heard a lot of emphasis on the feeling that he was going to win, one that could very easily be picked up from the passionate musings of Limbaugh et al. Even people within the campaign management have discussed how high the expressed zeal and intensity was among their followers - and now they think that the perceived fervor that went along with it was what led their internal polls astray - polls which, again, were skewed with a conservative bent. Recall how absolutely sullen most republicans were after the election, as though the result came completely out of left field.

These conservatives were duped. They didn't listen to enough people, and didn't consult enough facts. They did this to themselves by opting for a path of isolation from the other side's noise. Because they didn't know how to properly use the internet.

The Internet is probably here to stay. It would be best for everyone to be tuned in to the same facts and sources. That means that people need to make the effort to talk to each other, if any of the polarization that we currently experience is to be curbed. This needs to especially happen online.

It also means that the language of online discourse needs to be commonly understood. You cannot passionately declare something and expect it to convince people anymore. You must provide source material for everything you claim, and you cannot presume that your zeal and your life experience will carry your message for you. If you want to bridge this communications gap, then you must conform to the language of the plurality.

And the plurality is not the old.

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