The question of whether or not the internet is making us miserable is intertwined with the one that wonders whether it’s also tearing us apart. The trolls, the memes, the doxing: They all serve to box us into our own echo chambers, safe spaces where we surround ourselves with those who share our views. A new book from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, argues that it might not be so clear-cut.
“[T]he internet gives us a virtually unlimited number of options from which we can consume the news,” Stephens-Davidowitz writes in an excerpt published by Wired. “And people, if left to their own devices, tend to seek out viewpoints that confirm what they believe. Thus, surely, the internet must be creating extreme political segregation.”
Liberals read liberal sites. Conservatives read conservative sites. Neo-nazis read Breitbart. But the data doesn’t back that up. It doesn’t matter that President Trump decries CNN and the New York Times as “fake news,” because white nationalists read those sites everyday. The same goes for lefties, who often find themselves trolling the headlines on Infowars.
In the United States, according to Gentzkow and Shapiro, the chances that two people visiting the same news site have different political views is about 45 percent. In other words, the internet is far closer to perfect desegregation than perfect segregation. Liberals and conservatives are “meeting” each other on the web all the time.
Compare this to real life. How often are you, a Bernie bro, grabbing a pint with your conservative cousin? Do you, a card-carrying member of the NRA, regularly chit-chat with a mother whose lost a son to gang violence at the grocery store? If it weren’t for the internet, these communities wouldn’t be interacting.
In sum, the internet actually brings people of different political views together. The average liberal may spend her morning with her liberal husband and liberal kids; her afternoon with her liberal coworkers; her commute surrounded by liberal bumper stickers; her evening with her liberal yoga classmates. When she comes home and peruses a few conservative comments on cnn.com or gets a Facebook link from her Republican high school acquaintance, this may be her highest conservative exposure of the day. I probably never encounter white nationalists in my favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn.
It’s a convincing corrective to the widely agreed-upon theory that the internet is a catalyst for the apocalypse. Check out the whole thing and then go about shitposting your political opponents with a slight spring in your step.