How Digital Helped Divide Our Nation

This week’s election has been a deeply controversial, emotional roller coaster. It got me thinking about how we ended up here. In my work, I research the behavior of millennials and how it is primarily based on the influence of digital technology, rather than the foregone conclusions that often appear as generational stereotypes. One of the reasons I often say millennials are the most talked about generation is because of the sheer volume of media we all consume today, driven by the advent of digital technology. As I sat back and thought about this week, I realized that this election has also been highly influenced by the same digital technology and that poses some challenging questions to all of us, as a society.

This election is the first to be so highly discussed on social media. In our last two elections and throughout his presidency, Obama was lauded for being the first to use social media well. Although social media has been commonplace in among the general public, like most organizations, the government had been lagging in adoption. However, this time around everything, from Bernie Sanders’ campaign to the final hours of Trump v. Clinton, was shared in excruciating detail online. I began to observe and realize how digital has helped divide our nation:

Candidates Have a Greater Incentive to Be Sensationalist

Is it that much of a shock that a reality TV star knew how to capture America’s attention? The campaign gave all of us something to talk about – every week. It was often said that we were becoming less sensitive to crazy things Trump said because he said them so often, which made it more okay to say the next crazier thing. In contrast, the word most often used to describe Clinton’s campaign was probably “boring.” Consider the biggest debate post-election: Is Trump going to be the sensationalist, unpredictable presidential candidate – tools he and his voters often claim he used just to win the race – or is he going to be presidential? Since when did the tactics to win the presidency change from discussing what it takes to actually be the president? Since social media. Since the incentive became greater and greater, even more than the days of television, to be sensational.

The Public Is Less Sensitive Behind the Shield of the Internet

As users of the Internet, not seeing one another’s faces, we find it easier to say what we will. In person, I found myself saying to Trump supporters in person that it’s a hard decision yet online was a staunch Clinton supporter. I saw others judging each other online with such harshness that would not be acceptable in person. We can be anonymous online. We can find our niche and feed off of each other’s point of view online in a more global, far-reaching context than in the old days of in person. Even after the election, I’m continuing to see these kinds of messages online, that should be unacceptable. We often worry about teens bullying each other online; in this election, I believe we’ve witnessed what happens when adults participate in this type of behavior.

The Internet Can Be Elite and Blind

At the end of the day, based on the results of the election, we can conclude there were many Americans that probably weren’t sharing their opinions on the Internet or through social media. We all assume the Internet is open to anyone and therefore, provides an unbiased, melting pot of everyone’s views. Well, it didn’t. And it didn’t in a big way – half of America’s opinions weren’t adequately represented online. Often, Silicon Valley, living in their tech/start up bubble, have been observed as a bit clueless about the world outside, online populations in general can be similarly clueless. This is a bit surprising considering that the Internet has created a more transparent world than ever before. Perhaps this election provides us motivation to revisit this assumption and take a deeper look and what’s really going on.

The Gap Between Old and Young

With Brexit and this election, the tension occurring during this time of demographic shift is becoming even more critical. In the U.S., there are 74.9 boomers and 75.4 millennials (and growing, due to immigration, pending new policies). These two populations can often hold competing values and ideas based on the world they grew up in. There’s a significant difference in values attributed to the number of those that grew up in rural locations vs. urban cities ― in boomer’s time, many more grew up in rural areas. Many more got the appropriate education for and started their careers in the non-digital world. There’s an idea of going back to the good old days and a competing idea that this simply isn’t possible, given the advent of the Internet and resulting globalization. There’s the idea of being a U.S. citizen and a seemingly-competing idea of being a global citizen. There’s ideas of what an American physically looks like and behaves and the competing idea of diversity and equality that actually shapes America today. There’s an idea of materialism and the American Dream and competing ideas of focusing on experiences, minimalism and climate conservation. The gap in values is a direct result of a generation that grew up with the Internet and generations that did not. Note, I’m certainly not describing or prescribing every single millennial’s or boomer’s point of view. Also, in general, although there are many older individuals on the Internet, we can be sure that the majority of millennials and Gen Z are expressing their views on line. This is another way the internet blinds us to the full range of perspectives.

What Now?

Regardless of your political affiliations (and I sincerely apologize for any biases of mine expressed in this article), the sheer nastiness of this election poses interesting questions. Looking at the divisions created this past year and a half, along with the idea that all humans are composed of positive and negative thoughts, consider these questions:

  • What does the Internet and social media invite in terms of conversation? What conditions create this invitation? Is it just an open playing ground for the worst and best of human nature?
  • Does feeling comfortable to express freedom of speech in a large scale medium like the Internet hurt us more than help us? Consider in the past how limited the power was to issue messages on a national and global scale ― both in who had the power and how the power was limited by laws like defamation and slander.
  • What does it mean today to capture America’s popular vote – is it based on real issues or reality TV?

While I fully respect freedom of speech, I still find these questions relevant to explore. Just assuming freedom of speech in broad strokes with no further thought may not be appropriate, given the divisions we experienced during and in the aftermath of the election, all highly escalated by the presence of social media and the Internet. I believe by exploring these questions, we open doors to a better path forward.

As a millennial, I hope this year’s election doesn’t demonstrate what elections will look for the rest of my life. It’s too much information, it’s too much negativity, and it distracts us from what’s really important: making forward progress as one America.

Update: President Obama stated in beautifully in his farewell address on January 10th, 2017:

“For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste - all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there.

This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we'll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we'll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible..”

Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and consultant on Millennials and the Modern Workplace. Her unique expertise is in driving the connection between Millennial behavior and the evolution of the digital, modern workplace. Her company, Invati Consulting, modernizes the workplace through speaking, training, and consulting solutions. She is the author of Your Career: How to Make it Happen and the forthcoming book, The Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding into Workplace Breakthroughs. She is the creator of the acclaimed virtual, blended training on generations, Generation University™, and the Modern Culture Diagnostic™ that drives organizations to strategically shift culture for the needs of modern employees.