The recent American elections confirmed what we already know: the United States is deeply divided over the role, size and credibility of government, taxes, social welfare, immigration and globalization. This is no surprise: social capital - defined as connection with fellow citizens, including those with opposing views - has been steadily declining for decades. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone showed that depleting social capital has calamitous consequences for democracy.
This decline in social capital is a major driver of political polarization. As a Pew Research study found, liberals and conservatives increasingly don’t want to live in the same kinds of communities, let alone talk to neighbours who may have different points of view. This is not just an American phenomenon. Communities worldwide have become polarized and, in some cases, are disintegrating.
The consequences of polarization can be devastating. Divisiveness, rancour and distrust permeate debates about important issues, such as the legitimacy of elections, access to opportunity and resources, and nationalistic responses to globalization, including whether to erect trade barriers or withdraw from supranational bodies, such as through Brexit.
Polarization and disintegration are driven primarily by growing inequality; exclusion from the wealth created by the technology revolution; powerlessness to bring about meaningful change in the public policy arena; and in some cases, by autocrats who intentionally peddle division as a way of weakening democratic institutions and controlling people. Indeed, those who have experienced economic loss due to globalization are less likely to support democracy.
It is becoming increasingly clear that communities often lack a clear, trusted way of engaging in public debates that are critical to building shared values and shared visions of the future. To deal with the very real issues that globalization and inequality present, we must be able to trust, or at least relate to, the information that news sources feed us. Yet a 2018 Edelman survey found that trust in news media has reached an all-time low.
To be clear, the provision of reliable and trusted information alone will not address inequality, lack of power or access to resources, or the effects of globalization. However, it is an indispensable foundation to make sure that people of different political hues, economic means or personal orientations can talk to one another. If we distrust all information, or the information used by people who do not think like us, then we will simply have no medium or space to meet with one another intellectually.
It is practically impossible to control the content created in the world, even in autocratic environments. With the proliferation of communications mediums and machine- and user-generated content, the world now produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. That’s the equivalent of 250,000 Libraries of Congress. No algorithm can, or should, attempt to police that volume of information.
But it is possible to shape how people consume information, as well as their ability to identify and prioritize healthy, reliable information, by equipping them with better media and information literacy skills. Information literacy isn't a soft skill - it's an essential survival skill in the 21st century. When citizens can effectively navigate the flood of information and pick out credible sources and content, a common fact base can be established. This allows people to engage more productively in discussions with those who may not agree.
A recent study showed that people with higher media literacy skills felt more able to understand and participate in the political process, and were more appreciative of the complexity of challenging issues. This suggests they are more likely to engage productively with fellow citizens to find workable solutions.
Equipping young generations with these survival skills is not an overnight job. It requires that we prioritize critical thinking in the qualities we expect in our youth. It also requires deconstructing current school curricula, rebuilding them to make critical thinking and information consumption skills integral.
An extensive, but very rudimentary, layer of these efforts to build information consumption skills will be increasingly digital. Faced with an ever-expanding universe of digital content and means of disseminating it, we need to develop effective and widely available digital tools to weed out plain junk.
More importantly, we must help younger generations understand and overcome digital silos. These are pools of the same or similar types of information fed to them by algorithms that predict their tastes. Digital silos may sound harmless, but they isolate young people from one another, keep them glued to very limited pockets of the information universe, and reinforce their biases. They also deprive them of the benefits of different opinions and perspective.
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We must also equip youth with skills to navigate and resist confinement to social media peer networks. Peer networks have profound ramifications on how they process information. Young people need skills to detect emotional manipulation, white noise and pollution, as well as skills to reach out and connect with diverse networks.
Lastly, we must educate young people about how to verify and appropriately weigh the credibility of sources of information. Cross-referencing, telling opinion from fact and evaluating the quality of opinion are key survival skills.
Restoring trust in information helps build social capital. It is a means to the end of addressing broader societal clashes over complex issues such as globalization. Equipping citizens with stronger information consumption skills is an essential first step that we must take.