Political polarization on social media is often discussed as a simplistic bias. The problem, it’s often asserted, is people skewing their feeds to reaffirm their own beliefs. While at first glance this practice isdestructive, it seems like there’s more going on here than mere ignorance.


One cause of the temptation to silence those with opposing views on social media is that beliefs, by their very nature, are extremely personal. This is because beliefs aim at the Truth. If we have a belief, it’s because we think it’s accurate, verified, proven, or whatever precision you might apply to a bulky concept like “Truth.” As a result, our beliefs are important to us and their being challenged is easily interpreted as a personal assault. So any meaningful debate is necessarily going to have something at stake, and we might not be prepared to constantly have our chips in the pot.


This, it seems to me, is what’s really at issue when it comes to the tendency to block opposing views and follow congruent ones online: social media has removed any notion of compartmentalized political engagement. There is one constant, technologically-provided context within which to have an engaged debate.


There was a time when you could choose when and where to engage in certain discussions. It used to be fairly obvious when someone was being rude by discussing political matters. But with the advent of social media we no longer have a clear distinction between appropriate and inappropriate contexts. We are constantly under the purview of political discourse, which creates a sort of free-floating anxiety about our beliefs being under attack. And that’s distressing.


You can avoid your grocer who disagrees with you about animal rights by not going to their store, but to avoid @veganh8er a more direct approach is required: blocking.


This is all just to say that while polarization online and the curation of one’s feed to strictly similar voices are bad, they are perfectly understandable. But what we should find upon further reflection is that the lack of disagreement in our digital discourses leads to an underdeveloped ability to evaluate the beliefs we’re really attached to, which is an important component of good citizenship.


Of course it’s healthy to hold up our beliefs against the scrutiny of others, but it can also be exhausting. That fact needs to be understood and explored before any meaningful solution to online polarization can be pursued.

comments powered by Disqus