The political divide is getting more extreme; is this polarisation caused by inequality or social media and groupthink? Ironically, AI may have the answer.
I think I know what the problem is. It is technology. Technology can create wealth and freedom and plenty, but it is not always a force for good. Why do we have so many billionaires? Answer because technology has created business opportunities. It also tends to create monopolies. Technology has seen well-paid jobs in manufacturing replaced by minimum wage jobs in warehouses. But technology has also created social media. So, whether you blame social media or inequality, technology is the cause. I also happen to think technology has the answer.
Let’s drill down
In the most recent French election, we saw the kind of debate play out that had previously divided the UK and US. Once again, we saw an urban/rural divide. Seventy per cent of the Parisian voting electorate who cast ballots voted in favour of Macron; in rural areas, the split between Le Pen and Macron was 50/50. A 50/50 split may not seem to provide that much evidence of a rural-urban divide, but bear in mind that Macron won by a landslide. Le Pen’s popularity was much greater in rural areas, just as Trump is more popular in rural US, and in the UK, the Remain vote was stronger in cities.
But drill down further, and we find nuance.
When we divide France into those struggling to make ends meet and those with no financial struggles, we see that 59 per cent of those who voted and are struggling to make ends meet voted for Le Pen. Sixty-six per cent of those with no financial worries voted for Macron.
We also find that Macron was more popular with professions/managers and Le Pen with blue-collar workers.
Likewise, those with degrees were more likely to vote Macron.
So maybe the urban/rural divide is more symptomatic of inequality between those with city type jobs and those working in rural areas serving the local community.
Maybe the problem is that many city-type jobs involve companies that benefit from globalisation. On the other hand, those who work in rural areas are perhaps more likely to be victims of globalisation.
So, is that the problem? Is inequality creating political polarisation? And given how technology might lay behind this split, maybe it is the underlying cause.
In the US, a Pew research study found that Democrats and Republican politicians have moved further apart in their views. If the chart in this report is accurate, then in the US Senate, Democrats have moved to the left and Republicans to the right. But the shift has become more extreme with Republicans. The study states: “Democrats on average have become somewhat more liberal, while Republicans on average have become much more conservative.”
When we look at the views of Republican and Democratic members, we see this divide writ large. A Pew study from 2014 stated: “Not only do greater numbers of those in both parties have negative views of the other side, those negative views are increasingly intense. And today, many go so far as to say that the opposing party’s policies threaten the nation’s well-being.”
But the next bit, I find confusing. The 2014 Pew study found that the main factors leading to Democrats moving to the left is that more party members supported gay rights and immigration.
I have never understood why either of these ideas should be considered left-wing. Ronald Reagan was a famous supporter of immigration.
What we are seeing, however, is many people from poorer backgrounds, traditionally supporters of left-leaning parties, such as the Labour in the UK, shift to right-wing parties.
This is perhaps the biggest political shift of our time.
In the UK, the Labour Party has traditionally been more popular with working-class voters. But the Labour Party has become associated with so-called woke issues.
The Tory party, by contrast, is more closely associated with being anti-onshore wind, anti-immigration and anti-woke. That is not to say the above describes all Tories, but there is a clear shift. There is also a right/left divide on remote work, with many politicians on the right disliking remote work.
Far-right parties, and politicians such as Nigel Farage, are even more vehemently anti-wind power, anti-woke and anti-immigration.
These causes are often more popular with working-class voters, who have seen their real wages stagnate throughout much of this century.
And maybe that is all you need to know. Political polarisation is caused by a shift of many (not all, of course) working-class voters to the right, with their discontent sowed by an understandable dissatisfaction with the way their wages have barely kept pace with inflation.
They looked on in horror as bankers on fat bonuses caused the 2008 crisis and carry on as if it never happened. Many of the traditional working-class jobs have been disrupted by both technology and globalisation, and working-class voters do not have the luxury of being able to work from home.
We could end the analysis right here but this is a compounded issue.
Groupthink and group polarisation
Perhaps the real problem more to do with human behavior.
We know that crowds can be wise; we know of the dangers of groupthink.
Take group polarisation. Studies show that when in groups, people often become more extreme in their views. The studies also show that whatever the general predetermination of individuals in that group, once they come together, that predetermination becomes exaggerated.
For example, jury members often shift their views on the appropriate punitive damages from what they would have believed was appropriate when acting independently.
A group tends to exaggerate the average tendency within that group. For example, take a number of mild risk-takers and put them together, and as a group, they can become reckless gamblers. Take a number of relatively cautious individuals and put them together then, as a group, they become paralysed with indecision.
The evil of the share button
In 2006, blogger and WordPress pioneer the late Alex King created the original 'Share Icon', or so it is generally recognised across the internet.
Facebook was launched in 2004, opened its service to anyone over 16 in 2006; in 2009, the 'like' button was first enabled.
Twitter was launched in 2006, and the hashtag was introduced in 2007.
None of the above feel like menacing developments. But they did create an environment ripe for group polarisation.
Before the internet, we had biased media and that media was extremely influential.
But the political polarisation we see today was not a feature of pre-internet society.
So, what’s the solution? At one level, it is to do something about inequality— universal basic income perhaps (and maybe during the current crisis, food and energy rationing).
Here are a couple of answers to the problem of groupthink.
- Diversity. There is ample evidence that the more diverse a crowd is, and providing discussion within that crowd gives equal weight to all members, the lower the risks of groupthink.
- Education — education provides a partial fix, but only partial. Educated people are just as vulnerable to bias — in fact their education makes them more convinced they are right. But if education teaches a nuanced version of the Dunning Krueger effect, then that might work. The Dunning–Kruger effect is often interpreted to mean people with low ability overestimate their ability. I don’t particularly like this inference; it encourages a somewhat condescending attitude from apparently well-educated people. I prefer a more nuanced version: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. So education is a partial answer to groupthink, but only if it teaches you to question your beliefs objectively.
- AI. I think AI can play a vital role in the fight against group-think.
AI battling groupthink
For one thing, in a few years, we will have widespread AI assistants in our work and personal lives — this is the long-term consequence of the evolution of the smartphone. An AI assistant that constantly nudges us to question and provide alternative points of view could be a partial antidote to groupthink.
AI can also be used to enforce diversity and ensure that groups give equal weight to all members of that group. So the 'like' button, which amplifies group-think, will eventually need to be replaced by something more nuanced.
Free speech, Twitter and Musk
Elon Musk believes that his political views are largely unchanged but that the left has shifted so far to the left that he how appears to be on the right wing.
This is an extraordinary belief; it flies against all the evidence described above. Musk wants to turn Twitter into a pure free speech zone but has offered no input into how to balance content.
Groupthink and group polarisation makes this policy incredibly dangerous.
War on woke
And for some reason, so-called wokeness has become the centre-ground of the battle.
Wokeness is seen as a left-wing agenda to enforce certain views upon us.
Whether so-called wokeness has gone too far is a different debate.
Enforcing diverse views and discussions on the internet might seem like a woke policy. I have no idea whether it is woke, but I think it can save society from being torn apart.
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