Bridging Differences: The Promise and Shortcomings of New Media

I recently appeared on the Arabic language news network al-Hurra to talk about the role of the media in interfaith dialogue. With current tensions between American foreign policy and the Muslim world at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that the US government funded network takes an interest in the topic.

There was a common assumption underlying all the questions I was asked. The proposition was that our ever expanding and globally interconnected media ecosystem is fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. This is certainly an optimistic pronouncement coming from those with an interest in seeing reality as such. Unfortunately, our current media have failed to deliver on this promise.

The reality of today is that people often dig deeper into their established and preferred worldview. co-founder Eli Pariser has coined the term “filter bubbles” to describe our increased tendency to ignore content that challenges our opinions. Using newly possible online filters to block out dissonant views—whether intentionally or not—we are able to stay within our comfortable bubble-view of the world. This phenomenon, however, is hardly new, and media commentators from the age of McLuhan onward have bemoaned this human tendency. To be fair, there have always been media consumers who seek out opinions that challenge the boundaries of their worldview, but this group is a minority.

My fear, and frustration, is that the majority of us are happy to remain inside our bubbles. This inclination is made ever easier by the constricting algorithms that control our access to information. Our tendency to use search terms that reflect our opinions has allowed Google to become the most biased news outlet around. (Try googling both “women’s choice” and “right to life” to see this in action). Moving forward, automated systems reliant on natural language processing will dominate how we access, share, and become aware of information. Think of the micro-targeting approach of Google Adwords, or the small ads in your Gmail inbox. Content providers will increasingly use similar technology to suggest to you content you’re more likely to click on.

In this near-future where people are fed information cherry-picked from their expressed biases, the promise of users exploring content that challenges their beliefs and boundaries seems weak. Applying this equation to the challenge of discussing interfaith issues, and we see that expanded media offerings aren’t apt to change ingrained cultural attitudes any time soon.

Beyond the challenges of self-mediated filters, there’s a deeper perniciousness inside the belief that a changing media landscape holds the key to improved interfaith dialogue. By hanging our hopes on new tools to change society, we take the responsibility off our own persons. In almost every action in our daily lives, we are active participants in the creation of culture. We must first look to these personal moments — each one a choice — to proactively produce change. As tools only amplify human intent, we must first forge this intention in ourselves before we can achieve the expanded dialogue we seek.

Yes, our rapidly evolving media hold the promise of new opportunities for discourse, debate, and understanding. Yet the longer we rely on expanded media opportunities — rather than meaningful personal change — to bridge our cultural chasms, the longer our real divides will remain.

Futher reading.