NT: Andreessen may have decided that it was grim, too, because he’s put his bullhorn on the shelf and decreased his Twitter activity by roughly 99 percent over the last two years. (And if he starts up again, please let me know! As far as I can tell, he is the only person on the service who has blocked me.)
Anyhow, you have an interesting line related to this, roughly halfway through the book, where you say, “The more political media you consume, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.” And then, shortly after that, you point out that following a few people of different beliefs is actually poison, not an antidote. It makes one more partisan. Explain why that is.
EK: I just looked and I’m blocked by Marc, too. Weird! At any rate: In the section you’re quoting from, I describe a study called “The Parties In Our Heads,” which surveyed people about the composition of the political parties. What proportion of Democrats are union members, African Americans, LGBT, atheist? What percentage of Republicans are evangelical, over age 65, Southern, or earn more than $250,000 a year? What they show is that misperceptions of who makes up the other party are everywhere, but they actually get worse as you consume more political media.
Which makes some sense: Political media focuses on the most engaging voices, not the most representative. Fox News covers “the Squad” way out of proportion to their power in the Democratic primary because the Fox News viewership gets very upset about these young, diverse, democratic socialist women. Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Neal, the chair of the uber-powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is basically unknown to the Fox viewership.
But it’s not obvious that being exposed to even representative voices on the other side moderates partisanship. I run through a study in which Twitter users were paid to follow more people from the other side. The result of that exposure was that the conservatives became more conservative and the liberals, if anything happened at all, became more liberal (but that effect wasn’t statistically significant). Persuasion is very hard to do, and mostly what seeing arguments on the other side does is make us defensive, which pushes us back towards our side.
NT: This isn’t the subject of your book, but I often wonder whether there is any democratic country in the world that has not become more partisan in the past decade. Western Europe has gotten worse; the UK is a disaster; India is not doing well. The one countervailing example I can think of is perhaps Japan. Do you have a hypothesis about whether this is a global phenomenon?
EK: I’m not sure it is a global phenomenon. It’s really hard to do good data comparison here, but I recently wrote up a study that tried to create a comparable, historical data set of trends in partisan polarization across nine countries, including the US. They found that party polarization had actually declined in five of the nine. Again, the data here is a bit murky so I wouldn’t bet my life on these results, but at the very least, it’s not completely clear that rising polarization is the norm.
NT: Can you think of any part of the modern internet that makes people less partisan? At WIRED, we’ve written about a subreddit called Change My View. And we’ve profiled people who spend their days trying to calmly confront political trolls and partisans. But those are tiny islands of hope in a raging ocean of obloquy. What else is there? If I had to come up with one major invention of modern technology that counters the trends you write about, I reckon I would choose Wikipedia.