Bridging America's Divide - Can the Internet Help?

04/22/2016 02:00 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2017

by John Gable

When I was at Netscape during the early days of the Internet, most of us in the tech world shared a common idealized vision of the future:

When we are all connected online across the globe and have access to so much information, we will know more and better tolerate and understand each other.

In many ways we achieved that goal. Gloriously.

But not in American politics - at least not today.

Watch the news for 5 minutes. Listen to the candidates attack each other and belittle anyone who disagrees with them. Witness the division and pain on the streets in Ferguson and Baltimore or the ranches in Oregon. Hear the oppression and disenfranchisement that people with the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter feel. Note the stunning contradiction between the public calls from our leaders for bridging our differences and their divisive, belittling actions that further polarize us.

We are becoming more divided, not less.

We also know less, at least when it comes to controversial subjects. We may actually have more information, but are so inundated with just one perspective that matches our beliefs or shared by our friends that there is no room for understanding the facts, arguments, or people that support different conclusions. By hearing only one side of the story, we actually know less about it.

Part of the promise of the Internet was to fix this - to make us more knowledgeable and more tolerant.

Admittedly, I had my doubts. Back in 1997, I gave a speech that the Internet might not work out the way we were hoping. Since it relies so much on analogy - this is similar to that, this links to that (and now, you are a friend of my friend) - we might be trained to see everything that way. I was concerned that our brains would be programmed to put everything into categories, essentially training us to think in terms of "this versus that" and "us against them".

Unfortunately, that has happened.

Let's face reality. Much too often, today's Internet is sour and destructive. It's power to connect and inform, empower and energize has often been converted into the power to divide and deceive, manipulate and inflame.

What can we do about it?

We need to do two things: Break out of our own information bubbles, and connect in a human way with people with different beliefs and backgrounds.

That isn't easy.

Most people don't have time to get news from contrasting sources. In fact, many get much of their news by accident - via Facebook or in a TV night show. And in our increasingly homogeneous social circles with growing pressures to conform, it is harder to meet people with dramatically different views or discuss sensitive subjects.

What we have found at AllSides is that people need a helping hand.

So the first thing we do is use our technology to identify different perspectives on the same topics and news stories, and then we present them side-by-side.

The differences in coverage can be shocking or subtle, both with big impact.

For example, the latest job's report - a seemingly straightforward situation since everyone in the press receives the exact same information - was good news according to the New York Times with "Americans ... going back to work". The Washington Times had a mixed review since the unemployment rate rose to 5%. The New York Times didn't even mention the rising unemployment rate while the Washington Times included that in their headline.

And don't forget, that unemployment rate is suspect in the first place, as Gallop reports the real unemployment rate to be almost 10%.

But what do you see if you did a Google search? The New York Times coverage is a top link while the other perspectives are buried and hard to find at all. So we only get a part of the picture, potentially misleading by what it leaves out.

So to understand what is really going on, we have to see different perspectives.

That's only step 1 - the brain part. Step 2 involves human relationships - the personal part.

Obviously, standard comments and discussion groups that are routinely filled with inane blather and angry attacks are not the answer. So we are partnering with Living Room Conversations, Consider.It and others to provide opportunities for healthy, respectful conversations, in person and online.

That is what the Internet of the future can provide us - easy access to diverse opinions and people so we can understand the issues and each other better, ultimately making better decisions as individuals and as a society.

That is how the Internet, often blamed for much of the division in society today, can help fix the problem and bridge the gaps in society. But it is up to us to determine how the Internet will change, and how we use it. It's up to us to make it happen.

John Gable is founder and CEO of AllSides, a media technology company focused on revealing and bridging differences to elevate understanding and connection. A technologist formerly with Netscape and Microsoft and Republican operative who worked for George Bush '41 and three Senate Majority Leaders, John recently partnered with Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations and MoveOn.org. Together they are uniting left with right and relationship with reason to bridge the differences in our society for a more perfect union.