Commentary: Where does America’s hate come from? Your Facebook feed

A Fox News poll released Aug. 28 found that 56 percent of respondents think President Trump is “tearing the country apart” didn’t surprise me. What did stun me was how divided Democrats and Republicans are on that question.

Only 15 percent of Republicans believe that Trump is tearing the country apart, while among Democrats that belief registered an incredible 93 percent, according to the poll.

We have lost the middle ground. We now divide ourselves more and more by political party, and even within parties — with GOP extremists like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick working to defeat moderates like Speaker Joe Straus.

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We divide ourselves by neighborhood. Liberals are sequestered in Travis Heights and conservatives in Dripping Springs. We divide by where we kneel to pray, with progressives at churches like University United Methodist on Guadalupe and conservatives at Riverbend Church on North Capital of Texas Highway.

This growing division was well documented in a 2008 book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart,” by Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing. The book was based on a series in this newspaper.

I think that clustering has intensified in the last nine years — and a part of that drift is due to the growing strength of Facebook, which now is used at least monthly by 2 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people.

Recently, I was provoked by friend and longtime Texas land rights advocate Marshall E. Kuykendall, whom I’ve known 20 years. He exploded over liberals – all those people in Austin, including me – because of my column suggesting we mothball Confederate statues.

When I shared Kuykendall’s written objection, which I thought worthy of consideration even as I winced over his word choices, some of my “friends” were annoyed that I would give the land broker wider circulation. Kuykendall’s friends were indignant that I would decamp on his thread to engage them on their burning issues, which included the greatest president the U.S. has ever known, Donald J. Trump, the Soros-controlled Big Media and illegal immigration. “Clueless,” one posted. I think he was looking in my direction.

Facebook is not a medium where people concede the superiority of another’s argument, acknowledge doubt or confess to error. They follow the true north of their convictions.

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When I asked Bishop about the effect of Facebook, he emailed me: “I think the general rule is that if people can find agreement that’s what they do. IBM stockholders congregate in certain stock picking groups. Just as when there was a Republican paper and a Democrat paper, Republicans bought the Republican paper.”

Over time, we found middle ground on Kuykendall’s thread. There were a few dissidents to Marshall’s litany of liberal evils, including within the Kuykendall family, which includes a Harvard-educated professor.

But it’s really hard to get to common ground on Facebook. Maybe that’s naive. But middle ground is where we need to go now.

I don’t know whether Trump will survive his term or be ousted through impeachment or forced resignation. If he leaves early, I believe this: Our nation’s division will deepen to historic proportions. Think the labor violence of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the anti-war movement of the 1970s.

Even now, a 93-15 percent divide on the Trump “tearing apart” question is huge. That could result in violent reaction if Trump is forced out.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal Aug. 31, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Texan, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young said: “The country faces a stark choice. Its citizens can continue screaming at each other, sometimes over largely symbolic issues. Or they can again do what the citizens of this country have done best in the past – work together on the real problems that confront everyone.”

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Facebook now is an instrument of division as much as community. It is helping turn the United States into an Afghanistan-like nation of tribes with wars that seem to have no resolution.

Facebook uses deep data – everything from facial recognition to our activity on other apps – to bring together like-minded people.

I just wonder whether Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant people could devise algorithms that bring together the divided people of America on common ground.

Oppel is a retired editor of the American-Statesman.

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