Polarisation: How Social Media is Dividing Us

If you have been on any social media platform over the last week, you may be aware that the long drawn out US election has finally emerged with a victor. On the day that Joe Biden clinched the Presidential throne from Donald Trump, millions gathered to celebrate their freedom from the tyrannical dictator that was the outgoing president. This sexist, misogynist, racist man-child, whose very being had been constructed from hatred and insensitivity, had finally been thrown out of the White House and the self-proclaimed ‘greatest nation on the planet’ had returned to some sense of decency in the form of the Democratic candidate. Fast-forward four years, Joe Biden has led the USA to the greatest years in its history. Over the course of his first term, he made racism a criminal offence, implemented a universal healthcare system and fixed the glaring inequality gap. The man touted to be the savior of the free world had delivered on that label, and transformed it into a haven for everyone, from every walk of life, to live out the rest of their happy days. 

One can be excused for forming these misguided beliefs after being exposed to any form of social media over the last few months. But, as many reasonable people will tell you, it’s not an accurate one. Donald Trump is not the human embodiment of the devil. Joe Biden is not America’s savior. However hard the media may try to push for both of those narratives, it needs to be said: none of those are true. What those two ideas do represent, however, is two extreme views on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Social media and its rise over the last decade is one of the key factors of the increase in the phenomenon known as political polarisation. By definition, political polarisation refers to ‘the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes.’ In the USA, for example, the percentage of Americans that share consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled from 10% to 21% over the last decade. This time period coincides with the rise of social media, a tool designed to help bring people closer together. So although we have never been more connected than we are today, the general population is more divided than ever before. 

So how has social media managed to change perceptions to this extent? After all, we are in complete control of our own views. Well, it begins with the objectives that these organizations are trying to achieve. The likes of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter are all operating towards one goal; and that is to get the customer hooked. The criteria for success for these companies is the number of hours that they can get their customers to engage with their app or website, and they will do everything in their power to maximise those hours. They do this by appealing to the most primal of our psychological needs such as communication, validation and the most significant of all in this context, tribalism. Once we bite the bait, there is no turning back. 

They are then very good at feeding us the content that we want to see, rather than presenting us with the whole picture. Sites such as YouTube feed on this and will bombard you with all the ‘right’ content. The algorithm operates as such that it will conveniently present you with videos that validate your own political views, whilst also recommending those that undermine the opposite end of the political spectrum. And that is why we keep coming back to the platform- for that dopamine hit we receive when our views are validated by someone else. What that does is create intense political tribalism and hence, the mindset of ‘us against them’ becomes much more prevalent. The more we consume this tailor-made content, the more convinced we become about our own beliefs, whilst also being adamant that the opposing side is evil. The average individual spends 2 and a half hours on social media every day. That is an awfully long time spent on consuming content that is only dividing us.

Take Manchester United Footballer, Marcus Rashford’s campaign, as an example. His selfless fight to combat child hunger is objectively an incredible act of human kindness and his campaign’s success shows what we are collectively capable of achieving with just a little bit of compassion. 

In some sections of social media, however, the issue was viewed through a political lens. Some people chose to take the opportunity to attack the Conservative for being ‘heartless’ and ‘wanting children to starve’. Some decided to call out Liberals for trying to achieve a ‘naïve and impossible task’ and that it is the ‘parents’ responsibility to feed the child’. But this is not a political issue. This is not about how unsympathetic or unrealistic the other side is. The issue of providing free meals to the UK’s most vulnerable children is a  question of humanity. Regardless of their political affiliation and personal prejudices, the large majority of the populace are inherently decent people. There are a lot fewer people that are actively against feeding hungry and poverty-stricken children than the media might say there is. 

What these major corporations have done is alienate us from each other. Being called a ‘Tory’ in the UK – a colloquial term for Conservatives, is viewed as an insult, because of the exaggerated belief that they hold extreme political views that only favor them. When in reality, there is little truth to that. Every group of people with shared interests are now being generalised by the media and we feed into this narrative that every individual who holds identical beliefs to the group is an evil human being. Instead of dealing with the real problems at hand and coming together to make significant positive changes in society, we choose to attack and belittle each other’s views simply because we have different opinions and cannot see where others are coming from. But ironically enough, we have more in common than that which divides us, in the sense that we have all been brainwashed, just in different directions.

Research by More in Common in 2019 illustrates this very well. According to a study they conducted, in the USA, Democrats and Republicans believe 55% of the opposite political party holds extreme views when in reality the number is closer to 30%. This illustrates that many of our biases are constructed on false perceptions, aided by content that has been force-fed to us. 

While social media is the main factor for this increase in political polarisation, the roots of this idea have been firmly in place for decades. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop (2004), explores the reasons for polarisation across the USA. He argues that there is less diversity in terms of political opinions in the places that we live in. In the USA, you are unlikely to encounter a Trump supporter in New York, as opposed to a state like Alabama. Bishop argues that we have surrounded ourselves with people who have the exact same views as us, in a geographical sense. We are rarely exposed to those with polarising ideals. This results in a scenario where our worst convictions about the other side go uncontested and are even encouraged. With both sides gradually increasing in their disdain for each other, there is less patience and opportunity for cooperation. With this issue already in place, the introduction of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook was bound to accelerate what was already a growing issue. 

In their early days, Facebook, Twitter were not as big an issue as they are now. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt go into depth as to how these companies evolved into gargantuan commercial entities with a largely unregulated power to manipulate and shape public opinion. For starters, they served as platforms for people to connect through sharing their interests. Through this medium, they could meet more like-minded people and the premise at social media between the years 2005-2009 was wholesome human connection. 

However, the introduction of the ‘like’ button on Facebook changed the entire complexion of social media usage. The platform was no longer a medium of expression. Rather, Facebook had transformed into a popularity contest. Instead of being adapted to user requirements, Facebook optimised their newsfeed to provide its consumers with the posts that had the most engagement i.e. likes. Mainstream media saw this rise and chose to operate on these platforms in order to increase their own engagement in this increasingly digital era. They quickly realised that the stories that garnered the most engagement were those that caused the most outrage. Negativity spreads like wildfire, and with the addition of the share and retweet features on Twitter and Facebook, the more extreme opinions were spilling out and spreading across the public.

The platforms sensationally changed from ‘look at these things I like’ to ‘I am very angry about this issue’. They became outrage machines which meant trivial matters were blown completely out of proportion. If you have an opinion that is even slightly different to those of the people around you, you are likely to be lambasted for being ignorant or insensitive. The headlines you see today are centered around  issues that have offended a minority of people, and if that same issue doesn’t offend you, the self proclaimed ‘activists’ with pitchforks in hand, are quick to convince the world that you are its problem. That is the unfortunate culture that we find ourselves championing in today’s world. Crippling poverty, overpopulation and climate change- all issues that threaten the very existence of our civilisation take a backseat to much more trivial matters. 

The constant use of social media has resulted in perceptions being so disillusioned to the extent that anyone that doesn’t agree with your view is instantly demonised. The Perception Gap survey shows that people who use social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Buzzfeed as their news sources are more likely to have little to no idea of where the opposing view is coming from. Furthermore, those who use social media to express their political views have shown to have a substantially larger perception gap than those who do not. The wider this perception gap, the more likely the person is to attribute negative qualities to the opposition such as ‘brainwashed’ or ‘hateful’. 

Adding on to this is the idea of virtue signaling. Many people, consciously or not, post certain political views so they can prove they are a ‘good’ human being whilst simultaneously gaining a sense of approval from their peers that they are on the ‘right’ side. With such polarised views becoming the forefront of everyday conversation, the nuances of open-ended dialogue are no longer feasible because there is a lack of people wanting to engage in these discussions. Their perception that anyone on the other side is evil leaves little room for compromise so the idea of cooperation is not plausible. 

Taking all this into consideration, it is easy to label social media as a destructive tool. But we must not forget that it is also a source of some much-needed change in this world. Global issues such as the famine in Yemen, the Black Lives Matter movement and the treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China have received much more awareness than they would have. Over these platforms, the message reaches more people and we raise more for these causes if we unite on a global front. If we put political differences aside and come together, we can be drivers of real change. The key is to look at these issues with human empathy instead of politicising them. We spend so much time playing the blame game that we don’t spend enough of it actually trying to solve the issues at hand. And there is nothing to suggest we cannot come together and co-operate.

In fact, much of the evidence points to the contrary. An experiment titled ‘America in One room’ by James Fishkin and Larry Diamond is an example of this. It was carried out by taking 523 registered voters from around the country and putting them in groups of 12 to discuss political issues. Their results showed that the gap reduced drastically between views after discussions were held. The participants that felt American Democracy was working well rose from 30% to 60%. Therefore, we can safely presume that engaging in open discussions like this is part of the solution. Once we begin to listen to where the other side is coming from, we gain a better understanding of their principles and the roots of their ideas. The current issue is that there is no room for compromise. With so many people on either end of the spectrum, the chances of coming to agreements are slim. Politicians are left with impossible jobs; with every decision they make being subject to intense scrutiny from at least one political tribe. 

At its very core, Politics is an obnoxious and loud power struggle between groups of people who you would presume would know better. It is a self-serving tool for those at the top to gain power and rule to their benefit. They will say what they need to gain those votes. And the rest of us lap it up like it is of any significant value. When Trump and Biden belittle each other in farcical debates, or when countries like India and Pakistan can’t get over their petty differences and even where there is an actual debate on whether poverty-stricken children should receive free school meals, there are bigger issues at hand than who is right or wrong. 

Social media and the very structure of our respective countries have set us up to hate each other. By being open-minded, engaging and actually listening to different opinions, we can find solutions to the problems that we are all facing as a global population. That might mean that we are wrong sometimes, and we have to accept that. This way, we can actually make a difference.  

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