Two narratives have emerged from the atrocity in Orlando: One blames the violence on gun laws and homophobia, sponsored by the NRA and the religious Right. The other points to homegrown terror and radical Islam, emboldened by a weak foreign policy and political correctness.
The resulting exchange has been hostile. American journalists are not debating gun control or radical Islam. Instead, they are accusing their rivals, implying that their bigotry, idiocy, or cowardice caused the largest mass shooting in American history.
Tragedy used to bring the country together. After September 11th, Americans looked to President Bush for leadership. His approval rating hit 90%. Congress passed unanimous legislation to target terrorism. Republicans and Democrats made common cause against a common enemy.
This unity is unimaginable today. Within minutes of Orlando, political twitter was ablaze with opinion. Conservatives ignored President Obama’s remarks. Pundits took early sides and never changed them. We have a common cause, but we have not found a common enemy.
Social media—which encourages polarization and ideological conformity—is largely responsible for this change.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal released a graphic called “Blue Feed, Red Feed.” It presents two Facebook “timelines,” side by side, one conservative and one liberal. The conservative feed includes only those sources that are popular among “very conservative” users. The liberal feed mirrors “very liberal” accounts.
In the feeds, readers see a divergence of realities. On topics from Trump to abortion, Americans consume wildly different media. Confirmation bias runs amok.
We can view this as a public choice problem. On social media, people want to follow like-minded thinkers. This preference functionally isolates them from dissent. People also seek validation (likes, retweets, and shares) from their like-minded followers. This desire gives them an incentive to be loud, not reasonable—to strawman, not to argue.
These features of social media have implications for our politics. A growing number of Americans get their news from Facebook and Twitter. The platforms also shape mainstream journalism: Before pundits write articles or go on the air, they take hard stances online. As such, the politics of Facebook infiltrate the evening news.
There are three problems with polarization: First, it encourages people to hold crazy views. Consider the leftists who blame Orlando on the religious right, arguing that Christians’ views of gay marriage somehow influenced a radical Islamist. Could leftists defend this position outside of a narrow echo chamber?
Second, polarization impacts policy. By preventing us from having substantive debates, it prevents us from taking reasonable, appropriate actions. The country suffers for our indecision.
Finally, polarization is hostile to national unity. If we believe our political rivals are not only wrong, but also ignorant and evil, we endanger the principle of good faith—the foundation of common citizenship.
Happily, many Americans have avoided the perils of polarization. Nationally, a record number of Americans are political independents. Recently, thousands have donated blood in Orlando. Even online, some writers reject the either/or nature of our modern debates.
It is certainly possible that pundits are the exception and not the rule, that normal people are better than their journalists. I hope so!
Either way, the volunteers and law enforcement officials in Orlando are an example to the rest of us. They show us how to value country and community above self. For that and other reasons, I’m grateful for their service.
To imitate them, Americans should reject the polarized character of social media. By following diverse sources—especially those they disagree with—they can enrich their own ideas and better participate in democratic government.
One of my co-bloggers is writing on the foreign policy implications of the Orlando shooting. His piece will be out by tomorrow, and I expect to agree with most of it.
In the meantime, here are my tentative prescriptions for Orlando. We should…
- Clearly identify our enemy as radical Islam.
- Support wide-scale surveillance as a means of anticipating and preventing homegrown attacks.
- Equip police departments with the military-grade equipment they need to protect American lives.
- Avoid irrelevant scapegoats, like the religious right in America.
- Reconsider the sale and availability of AR 15s.
- Reconsider American immigration policy.
- Reconsider our approach to the Islamic State and the possibility of putting boots on the ground.