It’s hard to observe change when you’re living through it; things seem normal day to day until you remove yourself from a situation and look at all that’s happened from a third party perspective. This is what I did while deliberating about this ridiculous election season and I realized that we are more polarized and more uneducated than ever before.
I remember days when people could have rational conversation about politics, a time when a republican and democrat could discuss and debate their views but also still be good friends at the end of the day, knowing that political leaning has no impact on the strength of a friendship. Back then, we were more open to different points of view and i feel like more productive conversation occurred. Now, I feel I can’t even be friends with someone if they share the views of the opposite party because that means this person supports Donald Trump, which is something I simply can’t wrap my mind around. Political affiliations have basically become high school cliques: people who share the same views and only interact amongst themselves.
What has happened in this short period of time? How can someone who is only 19 years old see such a huge shift in Americas political landscape and its social implications?
The answer lies in the emergence of media and social media over the past few decades, and the new ways in which we consume information.
First, The Media
The Pew Research Center did a study in 2014 on political polarization and found that 47% of consistent conservatives cite Fox News as their primary news source for politics and government, while consistent liberals cite a number of news sources, the main ones being CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and The New York Times. Here lies the first problem. Both sides trust news outlets that are inherently biased. Fox News is notorious for their conservative bias, while websites like The New York Times and NPR (and CNN in my opinion) are known for its liberal bias. These news outlets rarely present the opinions of the other party, and when they do, they are presented in such a way that would most likely validate the reader’s/viewer’s current political opinions even more.
To top this stat off, the same research also shows that consistent liberals trust more than 28 of the 36 news sources surveyed, while consistent conservatives distrust more than 24 of the 36 news sources.
This statistic shows that not only do people stick to media outlets that support their views, but they also tend to invalidate any source that might give them insight into the views of the opposite party. This media bias has existed for a while, and it has laid the foundation for further polarization during the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Now take this statistic: the consistently liberal and consistently conservative groups are both more likely to drive political discussion.
Does this sound like a similar concept? We often discuss this ‘Yelp philosophy’ in class; the idea that only those with a strong opinions (negative or positive) will post reviews and comments, not giving us an accurate depiction of the restaurant. This is the same thing that’s happening on social media. You’ll very rarely see a post saying “I think the answer lies somewhere in between Trump and Clinton! They both have good ideas!”, and if you do, the post probably didn’t get much attention on that social media platform. It’s the firey, angry post saying “LOCK HER UP!” or the calm but scalding attack on Trump’s misogyny that catch peoples attention. When a moderate conservative see’s a post about ‘Crooked Hillary’, or a moderate liberal see’s a post about “Trump not paying his taxes”, you’d better believe that those people will start leaning towards the extreme of their respective political party and farther away from the center.
This problem has been further perpetuated by companies like BuzzFeed, NowThis, and Upworthy. Media companies like these produce short, digestible videos about politics that dumb down our understanding of hot topics and important issues, and demonize candidates without providing enough context.
To be fair, some videos have meaning and are meant to send a good message, like this one:
But then there are others, like this video, that have no purpose but to shame a candidate by pulling out soundbites and slapping them together, to make him/her sound stupid and hypocritical.
Don’t get me wrong, I am vehemently against Trump, but I try to think twice about what I take away from videos like these. There are times when I know things have been taken out of context, and words have been manipulated to make things sound worse than they actually are.
It just so happens that these specific media websites I mentioned lean left. I’m sure there are other media pages that lean very much towards the right, (The Blaze immediately comes to mind) but I never really see much of them, which brings me to my next point.
It is widely known that Facebook tailors the content that arrives on your newsfeed based on your preferences and topics they know you like. Because of this, I usually am only exposed to things that reinforce my point of view. A great example of this was the whole Bernie Sanders movement. I, a self proclaimed moderate liberal before, moved so much to the left due to all the praising of Bernie by friends/web pages on Facebook that clogged my newsfeed. Now could I actually tell you about Bernie’s policies and concrete plans for the country back when he was still a viable candidate? Probably not. I was pushed to the left, without really understanding what that entailed, and this is what is happening on a large scale level.
I certainly am a victim of the role that social media has played in this election season. I like the Facebook posts bashing Trump and I watch all those short videos that are on autoplay that often ridicule the Republican Party. And on the small occasion I’m exposed to a right wing post or media platform, I immediately discredit anything it suggests about Hillary and the Democratic Party. This type of toxic environment is the reason for political polarization, and why no real compromise or middle ground has been reached in recent years.
My question is, how do we encourage real debate about real issues again? How do we achieve this when mudslinging and hyperbole seem to be the only thing capturing the publics attention in this election season?