The National Bureau of Economic Research has long been a highly respected and independent source of analysis on economic and statistical matters. So it is well worth paying attention when they focus on the impact of the Internet on polarization.
A recent Report concludes:
We find that the increase in polarization is largest among the groups least likely to use the internet and social media. . . . Across intermediate age groups, the growth in polarization is consistently higher among older respondents. Polarization increases more for the old than the young in eight of the nine individual measures. A similar pattern emerges for groups of respondents divided by our broader index of predicted internet use.
The paper admits that there may be ways of explaining the phenomenon to dissolve the inconsistency, but, given its breadth of measures, that seems unlikely.
Indeed un-linking Internet access statistics from polarization does not exclude the possibility that the existence of the Internet incentivizes the taking of extreme positions, and that those incentives work on populations regardless of their internet access. It may be, or example, that what the Internet did was make it possible for marginal voices to be amplified much more by mainstream media who reach lower information people. In other words, we would be worse off without the Internet.
However, when you think about it, the “beauty” of the “Internet did it” meme is that no one needs to take responsibility. Not the commentators, not the politicians, not the newsfolks, not the religious leaders. Not the increase in inequality, not the massive insecurity, not the reduction of need for those with traditional blue collar jobs. Not the increasing costs of housing and education and the impossibility of getting both.
Holding people responsible for what they say and advocate — and what they said yesterday, and weeks, months and years ago is easier than ever before. Understanding economic change should also be easier than ever.
So, while the Internet alone may have some second order effects, its much more important to look at the big picture of ideas and leadership.