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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Tech platforms played a role in widening US divisions
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Tech platforms played a role in widening US divisions

The country has seen ethnic tensions rise but that does not mean it’s headed for a civil war

The US has witnessed growing political polarization in recent years.Premium
The US has witnessed growing political polarization in recent years.

Many of my friends in the US, even the ones I consider well educated and reasonable in their views, have turned dejected with the social and political discourse in their country. Some have even remarked to me that they expect a ‘civil war’ in their country sometime soon. I do not believe this is the case; nonetheless, there are two salient contributing factors which I will discuss here: one is technological change, and the other, demographic change.

Last November, a long piece collation in The Guardian by Barbara Walter, Stephen Marche and Christopher Parker (bit.ly/3qV6qXR) made the case that “conditions were ripe for civil violence." Upon reading details, it became apparent that Walters, Marche and Parker were also trying to promote their own books on the subject.

Predicting specific events like a civil war is inherently challenging, especially for a complex and multifaceted country like the US. However, there are some factors that are often mentioned in discussions about social cohesion and potential civil unrest. First, the US has witnessed growing political polarization in recent years. This means that the two major political groups (Republicans and Democrats) have moved further apart in their beliefs and are less willing to compromise. This is a departure from the earlier political discourse, where neither the “loony left" nor the “rabid right" made decisions, while the moderates who formed the bulk of both parties typically had similar views, hence allowing for a consensus on moderate policies and social milieus.

In the last several years, social media platforms have amplified existing divisions. They function on algorithms that prioritise content that provokes strong reactions, which can result in users being exposed mainly to content that aligns with or reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. This ‘echo chamber’ effect can reduce exposure to diverse perspectives and increase political and cultural polarization. Further, as we have seen, social media has been used to spread both misinformation (false or misleading information shared without harmful intent) and disinformation (false information shared with an intent to deceive). This can further sow discord and mistrust among populations, and we have seen this happen a great deal in the US. In my opinion, most Americans do not get their news from established media outlets like this newspaper; they rely on their social media feeds instead.

Walter recognizes this as well and proffers regulation of social media as the panacea for all that ails the modern American state. She says: “But there is a potentially easy fix. Regulate social media, and in particular the algorithms that disproportionately push the more incendiary, extreme, threatening and fear-inducing information into people’s feeds. Take away the social media bullhorn and you turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hatemongers and enemies of democracy. The result would be a drop in everyone’s collective anger, distrust and feelings of threat, giving us all time to rebuild."

If possible, that would be wonderful. But Marche sees the issue differently. According to him, “The American electoral system is already hugely localized, outdated and held together by good faith.... If no candidate in an American presidential election reaches the threshold of 270 electoral college votes, the House delegations from individual states, overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans, pick the president, with each state having one vote." I have written before of inherent problems with electoral systems in any democracy; Kenneth Arrow received a Nobel Prize for elucidating this in his General Impossibility Theorem, which showed that stacking of an agenda can easily affect elections. It states that when voters have three or more distinct options, no ranked voting electoral system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting all criteria of fairness (bit.ly/45CCqPl). While these are known issues (social media and the voting paradoxes), the real truth lies somewhere else, and it is Parker who hits the nail on the head. He refers to a Los Angeles Times piece that says Caucasians will be a minority in the US by 2044 (lat.ms/3R5g2K4) . He asks: “As many White people (Republicans) confront the fear that by 2044 they’ll no longer be in the ethnic majority, they feel the need to take drastic measures to maintain White supremacy. It’s all they’ve ever known. It happened in the 1860s; what’s to prevent it from happening now?"

This is a misplaced fear. The US will have non-Caucasian leaders long before there is any chance of ‘civil war’. Western nations have seen a progressive ageing of native-born populations. Immigrants and their children have been growing their share. In 2011, the number of non-Caucasian births exceeded Caucasian births in the US for the first time and has stayed this way. This is true of many other nations, especially in Europe, where far-right reactions have been rising.

But far-right fringe groups have had inadequate purchase. Ireland had (and still has) a half-Indian, half-Irish and openly gay prime minister, before the UK followed with a prime minister of complete Indian ethnicity. While Kamala Harris may emphasize her African-American heritage over her Indian lineage, she is a non-Caucasian who’s a heartbeat away from the US presidency. And whatever you think of Vivek Ramaswamy, he is a White House contender for 2024.

Siddharth Pai is co-founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund manager.

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Published: 04 Sep 2023, 10:44 PM IST
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