Why is it that US polarization is actually a worldwide phenomenon?

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A great deal of prime-time TV shows dominating popular culture today are, in fact, international television formats. Competitive shows like The Four, Got Talent, Idol, American Ninja, Master Chef (the list goes on and on), are either imported to or exported from the US. Each show’s rules, visuals, pacing and even sets are being reproduced almost verbatim, and it is the judges and contestants that give them the local flavor. This is why you can walk into a hotel in Seoul, New York or Paris, turn on the TV, and despite the language difference, you’ll recognize the show that is on, and most likely get the story.

Given the prominence of TV in our culture, this creates a global culture that is at once very local and international.  However, this is not just true for popular culture- it may be true about culture at large.

It feels to me that elections have gone the same TV-Format route. Whether it’s the UK, US, Italy or Israel, each recent presidential or parliamentary election displayed very similar characteristics: many featured the same in-your-face like-never-before politicians telling it-like-it-is, saying that you shouldn’t let the elites in London/Washington/Rome/Tel Aviv tell you what to do.  In many countries the same polls predicted that while extreme voices gained momentum, an upheaval is not likely to happen (until it does!) All campaigns unearth a historic gap between one side of the country and the other.

One of the recurring themes of this ‘uniquely everywhere’ political debate is the question of nationalism vs. globalism. There is nothing wrong with loving your country or putting its problems ahead of those of other countries. However, in today’s polarizing climate, it has become a shallow us-vs-them equation. Chants of “America first,” “England first,” or “Poland first” have become a rallying cry against forces that threaten to tear apart each country’s national identity. There are no visible shades to this debate, you are either with us or against us.

This sameness of political climate indicates that the current US societal divisions, which ABC’s chief political analyst compared to that of pre-Civil War America, might not be a strictly American issue. Even if the polarized debate is about US-centric topics, like Gun Control and Healthcare, what drives and underlines it emanates elsewhere, and possibly everywhere.

One commonality to the countries that are experiencing the biggest degree of polarization is that those are Western countries. One could make the claim that in such relatively wealthy and comfortable first-world countries, there shouldn’t be such civil unrest, but evidently, it’s not the case. So what is it about these polarized western countries, what is it that they all have in common?

They all have a widening gap between rich and poor, with growing segments of society that feel disenfranchised. The other thing that those countries have in common is the deep penetration of the internet into society, and its dominance of citizens’ daily lives.

The digital revolution is easily the most dramatic change of our times. It is a fast-sweeping life change. In 2006, Facebook opened its gates to the world, followed by WhatsApp in 2009 and Instagram in 2010. The first thing we see before we go to sleep at night and get up in the morning is not our spouse, but our smartphone. No change is just good or bad, and when you are talking about a digital tsunami at this scale, one must ask-what are its side effects?

In today’s digital age, we have easily – and without notice – surrounded ourselves with ourselves. By this, I mean that, online, we are continuously exposed to our already existing opinions of our like-minded social media friends. Additionally, despite so many publications to choose from, we tend to get our news from outlets whose opinions we already agree with. Meanwhile, news outlets, trying to survive in a digital world that is hyper-saturated with content, have to shout to be noticed. Therefore, they have become more sensational and more overtly associated with a political leaning which proves more efficient in the digital world.

The outcome of all this is that the entire personalization theme, the bane of the digital promise, where each person gets only the content and ads that are relevant for him or her, has turned out to be a double-edged sword. Personalization makes sense for the web economy, but it is negative for society. This is because internet users not only feel justified in their opinions when seeing so many other similar opinions but also grow more confident in them, and thus get more extreme. The exact same thing happens to those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This is where the “us and them” mentality forms, quickly.

Filter bubbles (a term coined by Eli Pariser in 2011) do not explain all maladies of the Western world, nor do they account for many of the root issues; but they are a big part of the polarization problem. They accelerate other processes and existing human biases, which when digitally super-charged become destructive. Because filter bubbles are digital and not nation-specific, polarization is a worldwide phenomenon. Each country will have different characters representing different sides in the varied topics of discontent, but they are all fueled by the same online infrastructure.

If we wish to solve the growing polarization sweeping American society, or if we want to become better neighbors to one another, we need to recognize that the answer is not necessarily a national problem. Focusing internally might make sense, but the answer to America’s increasing polarization is counterintuitive. It’s not an American problem but a global one and, thus, in order to solve it, we have to come together internationally.

We need to address globalizations’ many problems head on. It’s impossible to undo progress, so our only way forward is to fix it. This is also true of the digital revolution. It happened so fast that it must have side effects we need to tackle. We need to become aware of the way algorithms shape our view of the world. We need to stop expecting that there are simple solutions to complex problems.

We need to refocus on our commonalities – what brings us together, as opposed to what tears us apart. We need to remember that what the absolute majority of us want is for ourselves and our children to live to our lives in safety and to its full potential. This is a possible ideal, not a zero-sum game. One side winning doesn’t mean the other side will lose. The wish to realize our potential is a commonality we all share.  If we didn’t, then TV shows celebrating human potential would not be so universally loved.

Daniel Ravner is the Founder and CEO of The Perspective – a multi award-winning website designed to open minds by showing readers what they’re missing due to echo chambers and filter bubbles. It displays two sides of current events, historic conflicts and classic debates, employing design and psychology to make it easier to consider ideas that are different from their own.

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