I wonder how many people had expected in the early 1990's that the many different types of information we can read or watch worldwide over the Internet, global 24h/7d cable network news or on-line versions of print newspapers, wouldn't to lead to better informed readers with more balanced view points.
Instead of giving rise to more balanced opinions through the variety of informations offered, the opposite has occurred. The number of people, who love to engage in one-sided, biased debates about factual information passionately and those who engage in the defense of their own viewpoints at any cost, have risen significantly.
It is obvious that people choose to read or watch whatever matches best their own personal, particular, ideological or national bias. Why is that? Never has the amount of information from all points of view been so freely available and accessible. It seems that people always have a preset view about anything they can think of.
Check yourself out. If you think about a country or people you have never visited and lived with for a substantial period of time, I am sure you have nevertheless some sort of "image and opinion" in your mind about that country and its people.
Once you visit that country you may end up being very confused, because you detect things that absolutely don't match your prejudiced views and you hesitate to admit your confusion.
The opposite can happen as well. You may detect that the people your meet really are the way they usually were portrayed in books and movies. We may not be aware of it, but most definitely we all have prejudiced viewpoints without being conscious about having them.
If it comes to ideologies and politics we certainly tend to read that what deepens our understanding of only that which we have made up our mind about already.
TV and radio media outlets in the US (with the tendency of worldwide media outlets to follow in the US media foot steps) build on this fact. There is a tendency, particularly prevalent in the US media, to pitch individuals with extreme and opposing ideological beliefs against each other and encourage them to engage in argumentative debates that pretend to serve the purpose of free and balanced representation of an issue for the benefit of the viewers.
Knowing that people always have a one-sided bias to begin with, the so-called balance (in showing two people with opposite views) ensures that any viewer will be incited to defend his own bias against the other side's argumentation. This hooks the viewer from all points of views (a goal in for profit media outlets) and it will typically not help in any way to change a biased viewer's mind to a more even-handed position, but will deepen his own one-sided convictions.
Anne Applebaum made a very astute observation and the following example might illustrate how true her statements are.
I heard during a short news flash on MSNBC's Countdown a very upset Keith Olbermann reporting about a German poll. Every fifth German citizen believes that the attacks on the WTC towers "was ordered by the US government itself". Among the under thirty years old Germans, it even is every third German. The poll was based on a sample of 1000 men and women, most probably a professionally executed, scientifically sound.
What Olbermann didn't report, which is more interesting to note, is that among the West-Germans under thirty years sixteen percent believed in some sinister tricks by the US government to order the attack on their own towers, whereas in the same age group of formerly East-Germans twenty-nine percent had this belief. Why?
It is obvious that all Germans, be it from the Eastern or Western part under age of thirty have watched and read the same newspapers, watched the same news since their fifteenth birthday, an age when most people start to follow news more consciously. There is no reason to explain this discrepancy through a different exposure or access to different news or propaganda. Both groups had all the access to all sort of news in all the freedom they could wish for.
Nevertheless there is a clear difference in each of those German's reality about what they believe is true. Obviously Germans read and accept only those truths, for which they made up their minds beforehand. Of course the same is true for any American.
Another observation which indirectly supports Applebaum's observation is the fact that people, who migrate for good from one culture to another, are the only group of people, who regularly experience a profound change of their own cultural identity, bias and sense of reality.
It seems that only life experiences, gained in other cultures, will change a biased mindset from one view point to another. What no amount of reading about other people's cultures can accomplish, namely changing your own biased perceptions, any amount of life experiences will. They even will do so in a way that you can't escape your own changed sense of reality, even if you wanted to.
This has been observed so often that much social and psychological research into first and second generation immigrant's identity modifications has been conducted. Many immigrants for example, placed into a new culture, experience the painful accusation of their own left behind family members of having completely changed their personality.
A common phrase like "You have changed a lot, you don't seem to be one of us any more" by old friends from an immigrant's former homeland proves the reality of an immigrant's change of cultural bias and sense of reality best. Sometimes this process is called an identity crisis, in extreme cases the immigrant is accused of over-identification with the new culture.
However sophisticated and analytical the debate over the issues dividing the new immigrant's sense of reality with the one of his native country's old friends may be, it seldom succeeds in building better understanding over the differences in perception let alone any changes in opinions.
If that is a fact, if any amount of freely available, diverse information on-line and in the TV media will not help us to change a biased mindset, but rather often deepens the divide, I ask myself what has to change in the information we access to turn this trend around?
What in our free, on-line worldwide information network has to change to fulfill our dream of better global understanding among peoples?