360° Finland: Truth bubbles, polarization and one-size fits all globalization

by , under Tuulia Reponen

Many people ask nowadays: ”Why don’t we agree on anything anymore?” My answer is: look at the structures!

Truth bubbles

“Truth bubbles” can be characterized as the contemporary “folk disease”.Fingers have been pointed at the algorithms of social media companies such as Facebook for filtering information based on likes in a way that is conducive to creating and enforcing them. Social-media users would see only things they wanted to see in their newsfeed and follow the narratives they already supported. While prejudicial filtering of information is how human cognition functions, and is not alarming in itself, Facebook truth bubbles bring that filtering to the next level. It minimizes the chances that we encounter contradicting information accidentally.

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Some analysts claimed that truth bubbles worked in favor of Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections. Trump’s supporters would only see news in their feed that casted his alt-right agenda in a positive light. Some news agencies have exploited the mechanism for maximizing their profits by publishing tailored news articles for different truth bubbles. If you wonder how this works, the same piece of news is published for liberals and conservatives; just some keywords are altered to suit the taste of the target audience. Perhaps even more worryingly, truth bubbles decrease the likelihood that people with opposing views exchange ideas and learn from each other.

A popular cry in Finland at the moment is that “if ‘the extremes’[1] just came to their senses and tried to form a dialogue, forward-looking politics would be possible again”. The discussion mostly revolves around the Finnish refugee policy and how it should be discussed about. Propagators of this narrative include among others the ice-hockey player Teemu Selänne, prime minister Juha Sipilä, the chief secretary of the ministry of interior Päivi Nerg and most recently Pirkko Saisio – a renowned author, actress and an advocate of homosexuals’ rights. In the early 2017, a Finnish speaking Facebook group called “Poliittinen metamodernismi” (eng. “Political metamodernism”), with currently 629 members, was created for the aim to bridge between different social realities. Beginnings of similar initiatives are present elsewhere on the web.

What causes polarization?

Rather than demanding “the extremes” to abandon their version of truths, which I think is at best a futile attempt and morally questionable at worst [2], I wish we would look at what causes polarization. A 2015 study by a group of political scientists (Nolan McCarty and Boris Shor) and an economist (John Voorheis) established a causal link between economic inequality and political polarization. The paper looks at political polarization at the US state legislature and concludes that the rising income inequality has shifted the entire legislature more to the right while the state parties have increased their ideological distances. This means that liberals have become more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

Thus, income inequality does not only have material consequences in a sense that some of us are less able to save up money and invest in shares (something that wealthy people regularly advice poor people should do). It means that we are likely to have less commonalities in our social realities and we will disagree more. In short: if let to increase freely, it can make our societies ungovernable.

When talking about right wing populism, the parallels between the disastrous events of the 1930s and the present day are readily invoked by politicians as red flags of where we may end up again. Economic mismanagement is stated as one of the biggest factors in the triumph of national-socialism. Is the repeat of “the history’s darkest hour” a credible scenario? There exists no consensus at least among historians whose debate I personally have followed. In other words, we cannot know at least not now. It is safest to say that the scenario cannot be excluded as a possibility.

Globalization vs. localization is a mistaken debate

In the light of the recent European elections, some have concluded that populism was a bomb that did not explode properly. The electorate has come to their senses after having been served the bitter lies of Trump and Britain’s “Leave”-campaign and voted for moderate progressives in Austria, the Netherlands and France.

But has the electorate universally accepted the pro-market politics as the only truth? Does the majority of us agree that corporations’ interests need to be first in order to guarantee increasing welfare for everybody? It does not seem to be the case, at least in France where most people voted for the pro-free trade cosmopolite Emmanuel Macron, not in favor, but in opposition to the protectionist nationalist Marine Le Pen. In the face of global challenges, both of them fall short in providing answers.

Despite of Macron’s progressive appeal, he hardly earns that label. He has promised to slash 120.000 jobs from the public sector, cut taxes for households and companies and has signaled support for trade pacts such as the “free-trade deal” between Canada and the EU, also known as CETA. According to the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament, if implemented CETA would lead to increasing wage gaps between the skilled and unskilled workers in Europe and hence would negatively contribute to social tensions.

Although Marine Le Pen rightly takes on the pro-market elite, she is not the answer either. Leaving her nationalist rhetoric aside, her promises to bring back the jobs for French factory workers ring hollow. Automation will make many of us unemployable (through no fault of our own) soon. It is unlikely, National Front could or should hinder the technical progress that will completely change the job market in the near future.

It seems likely that political polarization will grow in the future, at least if big structural questions continue to be ignored. Globalization is a historical fact, it has been with us for thousands of years, and is probably not going away in the absence of a world police. What I personally find the most fruitful question to ask ourselves is: what kind of globalization do we want, one that serves the interests of the few or one that benefits us all?

[1] The label’s use is problematic because it assumes that people who oppose and stand for human rights are on an equal footing.

[2] Basically, by occupying the moral high-ground the criticizer claims that given the same individual experiences, environment, education level, etc. they would have made a better call. In other words, it excludes the societal structures that shape individual agency.

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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.