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wine and dine


In the social media age, we must relearn the art of tolerance

Published 17 March 2023 in Magazine • 9 min read

Dinner parties seem less civil affairs than they once did, with guests being dismissive of opposing viewpoints. It’s symptomatic of a wider problem affecting discourse in all areas of society. So, what’s gone wrong and how do we put it right? 


Lately I have been struggling with the growing incivility of some of my dinner guests. For years, I’ve invited people around to talk about the many things we need to understand better in today’s world. But recently, I’ve found that voices are raised more easily and there is less willingness to listen to an opposing view.  

These are people from diverse backgrounds who are obviously smart and almost always well-read. But they seem increasingly to believe the other side is completely wrong. Instead of thinking this is someone who’s a friend of a friend, and maybe there’s a good reason he or she thinks the way they do, they set about trying to shout them down. 

Whatever the issue, and whatever the approach, I’m seeing an intolerance far greater than 20 years ago, with people getting fired up far quicker than ever before, and more and more of them refusing to listen to anyone from an opposing side.  

Polarized attitudes 

This is frustrating as a host, but also sad for everyone concerned because it is only by understanding different points of view that compromise can be reached, whether in business or in developing public policy.  

If it only involved the behavior of people in private, I would shrug my shoulders and regretfully accept it. I see it, however, as a symptom of a broader lack of civility in society in general, arising from changes in how people are informed about the social and political issues of our time. It is particularly relevant, I think, at a time when business leaders are trying to navigate coolly and calmly through a high-decibel environment of geopolitical tension, political division, inflationary pressure, and supply chain strain.  

Some commentators, looking for a cause of this rising intolerance, point to a wider polarization of politics driven by the rise of populist leaders in both the West, but also in emerging markets such as Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, and India. Others point to a polycrisis of climate change, ESG challenges, and the war in Ukraine.  

News media has gone from being a series of controlled monopolies to a global free-for-all where anyone can write anything for anyone and you need loud opinionated voices to be noticed

Faced with the perception of extreme situations, people come up with more extreme answers. The outcome is people determined to argue their position and intolerance of anyone who disagrees. Politicians seem to feed off and reflect this.  

In my view, however, we have the politicians we have because of the way we receive our news and opinion today. It is not that politicians are changing the way we think. It is that social media and exaggerated clickbait headlines, without the editorial filtering we used to have when our news sources were few and opinion was restricted to the editorial pages, have created demand among consumers for louder politicians with more extreme views. 

Let me make my case, while I pour you a glass of wine.   

When we had just a handful of newspapers and television channels, the news was filtered through those channels so that even if the news source was left- or right-leaning, only news worth reading (in the opinion of that editor) was printed or broadcast. Extremes never made it to press or air. Fake news, for the most part, did not exist. The news sources broadly catered to a sensible center ground, be it center left or center right, or one that was business focused.  

Then the internet came along, and print and distribution costs (whether physical paper or broadcast television) dropped. Barriers to entry for production and selling of news fell away. In addition, everyone now had a mobile phone that came with a decent camera. The result was that from multiple news sources we went to thousands (perhaps more accurately billions, given mobile phone penetration), and all of it has today found a way to get to readers or viewers via social media. Very little editing or filtering is happening. We can all read almost anything we want from almost any source we want, mostly for free, and with very little fact checking and few points of reference for what is now the “middle-ground”.   

The birth of clickbait 

Then comes advertising. In an offline media world, we told advertisers what type of audience we had, and they mostly believed us (we provided independent reader/viewer surveys) and paid us accordingly. In an online media world, we can tell exactly how many people actually saw the ad, the few who clicked through, and the fewer still who clicked again and went to an advertiser product or service page. Advertisers, understandably, love this detail. So much so, that they almost never pay now unless we provide them with evidence of page views and click throughs. So, we need to make sure people click through to those pages, which means headlines have started becoming a little louder and sometimes a little exaggerated, to make sure we got those views. Thus was born clickbait headlines and articles — even in the so-called serious media. 

I by IMD magazine Issue 9

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Geopolitical tensions, persistent inflation, economic weakness, climate change, and sustainability. Business leaders are dealing with an unprecedented range of challenges simultaneously, making it harder than ever to know how to prioritize, navigate, and communicate effectively with teams. Scenario planning, listening and leading in new ways are part of the answer. In Issue IX of I by IMD, we unpack new approaches to dealing with the polycrisis that's facing us.

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Then came global media markets and “long-tail media”. When our audiences were restricted by how far our reader/viewers lived from a printing press or a broadcast catchment area, we catered to just those people. Now we can write for anyone in the world. In the general media space that also means that anyone else can also compete for our audiences. This leads to greater competition for the same eyeballs and greater difficulty in getting people to click through to your story so that your advertisers’ messages are seen.    

It also means that niche media, previously unprofitable because the interest group was small and spread far and wide, now becomes viable because distribution costs have gone to zero and the wonder of search means that anyone can find what they want to read. Most of us live near the center of a readership “bell curve” distribution. But out on the edges of the curve, the long tails in either direction, all sorts of wondrous new news sources now can make a living catering to their small but avid readers scattered in small pockets around the world. 

The result of all this is that news media has gone from being a series of controlled monopolies to a global free-for-all where anyone can write anything for anyone and you need loud opinionated voices to be noticed. No one but ourselves acts as the arbiter of what news we consume. Most of us choose to read what we like, and nothing else. 

I think this is the environment that has evolved to enable loud, opinionated political leaders who cater to extremes, rather than the center. That’s where the center has gone, led further left, or right, by the media they read. This wouldn’t be a problem if most people were still near the center and only small numbers were out at the long tail ends of the news and opinion spectrum. But the inability to attract eyeballs to, and in, the center means that  

even some traditional media have shifted left or right, with more and more strident opinions (and thus less unadulterated actual news) to cater to their now polarized audiences.    

Education, not regulation 

Let me be clear. I am the son of a former New York Times journalist who was president of the foreign correspondents’ clubs in Hong Kong and Singapore at different times. My father was a strong believer in free speech and freedom of the press to print whatever they saw fit. He saw regulation of media as the thin end of a dangerous wedge, and I agree. 

My concern is not with the media sources, but rather how to help people navigate them and help them go back to listening to more than one side of an argument. 

My concern is not with the media sources, but rather how to help people navigate them and help them go back to listening to more than one side of an argument

Part of the solution may actually already be in progress, as students learn to navigate multiple sources of information and make up their own minds on a given issue. But teachers are not immune from this polarization of views, and I worry that schools and universities are no longer the healthy neutral ground for young minds to explore, debate, and learn without bias that they used to be.  

Where is my editor? 

Many of us have trusted sources for particular sub-sectors of news, whether for the industry sector in which we work or for a given hobby or private interest. Perhaps we take guidance from a friend or third-party commentator we have come to trust over time. This sort of trusted third party is hard instantly to duplicate for other areas. And as I have started talking to people about startups that might address the issue, the first question that comes up is, “How do we trust this new editor? Not just because someone else says so.” It’s a fair point. 

I have some hopes for the new AI technologies being developed. If (and it’s a big if) a ChatGPT style customizable AI editor could be programmed to identify the bias in news sources and illustrate left, right, and middle views for a given story, and if it could fact-check, suggest viewpoints to balance what we have already seen, and even suggest new sources or subjects that might interest us, this could be progress. But it depends on how well the machine learning system is taught. Bias can creep into anything. 

Seize the middle ground 

Maybe my wish for civility in social society is outmoded. Maybe it’s even not that important: the strident voices I dislike so much could be a product of the more democratic access to publishing content that has led to many more voices across the spectrum, each clamoring for attention, and maybe that also makes it harder to control people than it used to be, better protecting individual liberty. 

Still, I think it would be healthy for people to be more civil in their discourse. Expressing their opinions as freely as they like, but also listening more and trying to understand the positions and thinking of others. I think we would have better balanced public policy if that were more broadly the case in society today, and less of the wasteful pendulum swings we now see. We need less exaggeration of issues and more reasoned debate.   

So whether it is an AI-supported app or just everyone learning to triangulate news sources to make up their own mind on issues, I look forward to a time  where we get back to civil discourse in both public and private society — and my dinner parties can go back to being multi-polar and multi-cultural without me having to worry that one or more dinner guests might become overly agitated and spill a glass of excellent Bordeaux on my wife’s favorite white tablecloth.  


Ian Charles stewart

Ian Charles Stewart

Media entrepreneur and IMD Executive in Residence

Ian Charles Stewart is a media entrepreneur and IMD Executive in Residence. He co-founded WiReD magazine and is a member of the I by IMD editorial advisory board. 


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