The Founding Fathers of the United States devised a republican system of government in order to insulate statesmen from the impulses of factions and allow reason, rather than passion, to prevail. In a republic, as opposed to a democracy, it becomes possible to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 10.
Nowadays, politics are being increasingly shaped in the online world, with Americans living in online communities that disrupt this crucial mechanism of America’s representative republic. Instead of slowing down the deliberative process to prevent emotions from overtaking reason, social media selectively amplify extremist and polarizing voices, making it harder for representatives to put the country’s interests above satisfying their base. As a result, contemporary America has turned into a Madisonian dystopia: two big factions divided along geographic, social, political, and ideological lines. Between 1994 and 2016, the number of Republicans who had a “very unfavorable” attitude toward Democrats rose from 21 percent to 58 percent, and the number of Democrats with “very unfavorable” attitudes toward Republicans increased from 17 percent to 55 percent.
However, social media’s effect on politics is more subtle than conventional wisdom suggests; it does not widen ideological differences between political opponents but instead increases their animosity toward each other. In other words, social media exacerbate affective, but not ideological, polarization, by changing what citizens perceive as the roots of political differences. Because of social media, Republicans and Democrats hate each other more, and both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to support the same policy when they are told that it is endorsed by their party. In other words, much of political polarization plaguing contemporary America is illusory, grounded in feelings rather than real political differences.
At its root, our inability to cope with social media’s negative effects on affective political polarization is the consequence of implicit adoption of the doctrine that truth is manifest. This epistemology sees the attainment of absolute truth as possible and explains the apparent inability to comprehend the truth as a product of individual ignorance, evil intentions, or participation in a conspiracy.
The “manifest truth” doctrine is both erroneous and harmful. We should reject this vision of how and what humans can know, opting instead for critical empiricism in the spirit of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science. If we understand that truth is inherently tentative and provisional and acknowledge that we must cultivate intellectual humility, we could mitigate many of the worst repercussions of social media on politics.
The Explosion of “Facts”
Social media act as a personalized confirmation bias device that, coupled with the explosion of information in the digital age, has made it easy to find facts and evidence to back up our beliefs (“I did my own research”), justifying our confidence on contentious topics.
Consider the issue of income inequality. Left-leaning experts and most Democrats believe that income inequality has been rising relentlessly and presents a grave challenge, and they have data to support this view. Right-leaning pundits, however, using different datasets and focusing on other facts, point out that the real level of inequality has remained flat and does not pose any real problems. A similar situation arises with the issues of immigration, wealth tax, and the 2020 presidential election. Even if these separate sets of facts do not directly contradict each other, they are selectively used by partisans in support of their preexisting beliefs with little regard to the truth.
Instead of engaging in a rational deliberation process with their opponents, citizens find evidence aligned with their preexisting beliefs. This makes them even more entrenched in their views, because they are ostensibly based on objective facts. Unfortunately, evidence shows that people on both sides of the political spectrum are susceptible to irrational biases, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. For example, more than two-thirds of Republicans believe that the January 6th Capitol riot was perpetrated by Antifa. Sixty percent of Democrats believe that Russia had “damaging” information about Donald Trump. With confidence in the righteousness of one’s opinions comes support for—or opposition to—violence to achieve political objectives, as in the case of the 2020 summer riots and the January 6th attack.
When partisans realize that their political opponents do not accept the truths they supposedly know, they dismiss them as ignorant victims of misinformation, believers or even participants in a conspiracy, or malignant individuals intent on establishing a dictatorship. Political differences become grounded in facts rather than different value systems and moral visions. This phenomenon explains why the belief that one’s political opponents are more likely to engage in conspiracies has become so common.
When political opponents don’t agree on a shared reality and live in information bubbles with their own sets of facts, consensus-building becomes impossible, leading to greater polarization and gridlock. As Taylor Dotson wrote in The New Atlantis, “Once all political opposition is cast as the product of misinformation or science illiteracy, compromise becomes irrational, the sacrifice of truth to appease the ignorant.”
The Advent of “Manifest Truth” Politics
Fundamentally, moving to facts-obsessed politics driven by affective rather than ideological polarization is the consequence of the implicit adoption of what philosopher of science Karl Popper called the doctrine that truth is manifest. The manifest truth doctrine contends that even though truth may be hidden, it can be revealed by observation or reason. If presented with the truth, any reasonable person would accept it. This view is exemplified by Plato’s belief that humans, if only they thought through the problem clearly enough, could attain absolute truth by grasping divine Forms and Ideas, as well as Francis Bacon’s induction, according to which anyone with an open mind can “read the book of nature.”
While this optimistic epistemology powered the Enlightenment and led to tremendous progress, it has also had an unintended consequence of breeding fanaticism among those who believe their opinions are supported by evidence. For, as Popper writes, “the doctrine that truth is manifest creates the need to explain falsehood.” One must ask: “How can we ever fall into error if truth is manifest?” And the answer is: ignorance, personal prejudices, or participation in a conspiracy. The manifest truth doctrine leads to fanatical certainty, “for only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.”
When both sides of the political spectrum become convinced of the righteousness of their viewpoints and the malevolent ignorance of their opponents, violence and suppression of alternative perspectives are justified as necessary to actualize one’s vision of “manifest truth.” This conception of knowledge has become so deeply embedded in our political environment that it becomes difficult to discern not only its destructive consequences on public discourse and culture, but also its fundamental limitations.
Against “Manifest Truth”
In reality, the truth is not manifest. In politics, social science, and beyond, truth is provisional, tentative, and constantly changing. Even in the “hard” sciences, we only tentatively accept the validity of our theories, which are fundamentally hypotheses. They can never be proven with complete certainty, as the future might bring new evidence that contradicts our past knowledge and thereby refutes established beliefs.
If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.
Better education and higher levels of knowledge do not make one immune to confirmation bias. In fact, intelligent people are more prone to confirmation bias because, in the words of journalist Ian Leslie, “they’re better at finding reasons to support what they already believe, and more confident in their own mistaken views.”
Even raw data are not reliable. Assumptions inevitably cloud our statistical valuations and the way we collect, order, and analyze data. As economist Ronald Coase once remarked, “If you torture data enough, nature will always confess.” By taking into consideration the limited role of facts in determining political divergences, we can see that political differences are rooted in differing visions of human nature and moral belief systems, as Thomas Sowell has argued in his book A Conflict of Visions.
The Case for Critical Empiricism
The tentative nature of our “truths” and the inherent cognitive limitations of a single person are why we need more intellectual humility. Truth is hard to come by, and we can never be sure that we are right. Instead, we should focus our efforts on detecting and eliminating errors, on refuting and testing our theories rather than trying to confirm them, and on critically examining our beliefs rather than insulating ourselves from inconvenient facts.
This does not mean that we should abandon empiricism and refuse to back up our beliefs with evidence. Empiricism—in a wide sense of this word—is a backbone of our understanding of the world. Yet it can become dangerous when it gives us excessive confidence. Critical empiricism—a philosophy that acknowledges the limits of our ability to understand reality while not downplaying the importance of facts and evidence—is a better answer to the problems resulting from the advent of the information age.
The prevalence of the “manifest truth” paradigm in politics is the product of a bottom-up, decentralized, and undirected process, and therefore there can be no effective top-down solutions to this problem. Change from the bottom—such as promoting greater awareness of the limits of our knowledge and the necessity of critical examination of all facts through education—may help mitigate the challenges stemming from our manifest truth culture. For example, instead of asking citizens to follow “evidence,” we should teach them how to detect common tactics used when manipulating data and facts, as well as logical fallacies and biases.
We should also strive to approach political debates in a healthier, more detached manner. Politics should not be a primary source of identity. Rather, we should seek fulfillment in other, more tangible pursuits, such as family, religion, community work, career, etc. As Tim Urban commented, “when an idea hijacks your identity and becomes your boss, it reconfigures things to seek confirmation and reject dissent of the boss idea.” When politics no longer defines one’s identity, by contrast, it becomes possible to critically examine one’s beliefs and stop looking only for confirmations of one’s own ideas.
Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 that a “well-constructed Union” should be able to “break and control the violence of faction.” Likewise, in his farewell address, George Washington observed that it is “the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourse and restrain” the influence of factions. Research shows that when partisans learn that the majority of their political opponents are moderate, animosity toward them falls sharply.
To reduce affective polarization and forge a better path forward for the nation, we must abandon stereotypical, biased, and irrational perceptions of people the other side of the aisle. Acknowledging that one’s opponents may be right and that it is difficult to attain truth in politics is essential to bridging the current divide in America, defeating political polarization, and diluting the negative influence of factions.