Finn Cohen’s interview with Whitney Phillips was needed and timely, but we on the Left can be just as blind. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, author Jonathan Haidt shows how deeply confirmation bias is ingrained in all our brains, not just the brains of those on the Right.
Phillips laments that “anything the ‘libs’ said was automatically going to be suspect, biased, evil.” This goes both ways. For many liberals, anything conservatives say will automatically be suspect. I know this because, as an increasingly centrist liberal, I get responses of betrayal and horror if I step even slightly away from the party line.
To Lauren Dito-Keith: I’m most worried about kids because they will inherit our mess — a mess that’s the result of our economic and network structures working exactly as they were intended to. If things proceed as they have so far, the online world will be even worse for young people by the time they’re adults. Our task is enormous: to break the cycle of information dysfunction, and to prepare young people to navigate that dysfunction right now. Most adults struggle to do that, so I worry about young people.
To John Spiri: Without a doubt there is bias and partisanship on the Left. But it is simply not the case that the mainstream center-left media ecosystem drives its audience to the same factually unmoored place as the far-right one. Look at the coverage of false claims of voter fraud. Are both sides making partisan claims? Of course. But are the claims equivalent in fact value? Absolutely not. That’s what makes the polarization asymmetric.
To Katya: What I was lamenting more than anything was how information — and in the case of COVID, information critical to public health — has been weaponized by the Far Right. Your point is well taken. There can be purity tests on the Left, too. But the specifics matter. Pushback against actions that don’t dehumanize anybody else is one thing; when those actions threaten others, however, that’s something else. It depends on who’s speaking, who’s pushing back, who has power, who doesn’t, and what’s at stake.
Whitney Phillips’s views on how the Internet is impacting us [“Dark Corners,” interview by Finn Cohen, November 2020] were inspiring and insightful — and terrifying. What I want to know is why she is “most worried about” educating four-year-olds about the dangers of social media. I have a four-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her to turn into a dummy or a self-loathing sociopath. Can Phillips say more?
As someone who sees political polarization as an even bigger problem than the Trump administration, I found Finn Cohen’s interview with Whitney Phillips disturbing. Implying that polarization and the “attention economy” are exclusively problems on the Right is counterproductive.
Virtually every example from Phillips blamed the Right, as if those on the Left are merely innocent victims of polarization: white supremacy, bigotry, neo-Nazis, etc. While “asymmetrical polarization” — the term Phillips uses to blame the Right — might have some truth at the governmental level, it doesn’t apply at the individual level.
Citizens on both sides are surrounded by like-minded people more than ever, especially on social media, where the Left is every bit as susceptible to misinformation, half-truths, and bias. The algorithms of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter work the same on both sides.
Do you applaud or condemn Robin DiAngelo for claiming all whites are racists in her book White Fragility? When someone calls Donald Trump an “orange piece of shit,” do you hear a dehumanizing attack, or do you feel righteous pleasure? Regarding the August 2020 civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are you convinced Kyle Rittenhouse is a right-wing zealot who provoked an encounter with protesters to shoot and kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in cold blood? Or are you convinced Rittenhouse is an upstanding citizen who, in the course of trying to protect businesses, encountered violent attackers and ended up killing two in self-defense? Media bubbles shape the way these examples are perceived, whichever side you are on.
Dialing down polarization requires that everyone deeply considers their own biases, but Phillips’s analysis will only embolden those who increasingly see themselves as heroes fighting a brainwashed “other.”