Does Social Media Deepen Political Divide?

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Photo: YND – Voting poll in Washington, DC

Politicians are increasingly using social media to reach out to (potential) voters. In and of itself, this is just an evolution of communications strategies that leverage new tools and take advantage of the cheap and direct access to the public. There is nothing wrong about this. To the contrary, especially when the public’s feedback is taken seriously.

From this standpoint, social media should, in fact, cement relationships between decision makers and the public, and foster understanding between people with diverging views. Ultimately, such exchanges should help resolve divides in a society and move towards solutions that favor a more harmonious cohabitation of the different views.

Missed opportunity

That would be in a perfect world where the race for power and party interests would not take over the good of the nation as a whole.

The diversity of parties and ideas is a good thing for democracy. But when parties themselves only play the blame game without offering clear and inspiring visions, and polarize the debate, they drive the population to extremes with them, even without social media.

The U.S. divided Congress’ inability to come together in 2011 to find a plan to reduce deficits was the first reason for the country to lose its AAA rating, meaning everyone pays a higher price for it. S&P Global then said “the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened.”

Since then, things have worsened. The use of social media has greatly spread within government, but the polarization of politics has translated into polarized exchanges online.

In my view, this has been a missed opportunity for politicians to show how they could rise above divisions for the good of all, instead of transferring their fights onto platforms where informed and uninformed views cross paths, rarely leading to constructive exchanges, and often even deepening divides.

Populations are chiming in, often with little knowledge or research effort, providing emotional opinions, if not straight insults.

Here is a Tweet from Donald Trump (@realdonald) in 2015 in response to the terrorist attack on French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, and some reactions at the bottom:

charlie

Photo: Screen shot of @realdonald (Donald Trump) account

Growing divisions

Such a tweet could only encourage strong reactions charged with emotion, in support or against it.

Social media also contributes to the prominence of image over substance as platforms don’t lend themselves to in-depth discussion given the limited space on Twitter or blogs that cater to a society with limited attention span when it comes to reading.

Just like in real life, people tend to gravitate around like-minded people, limiting their exposure to one side of the political spectrum. But on social media, the proliferation of news, fake or real, amplifies this one-sided view. Such “echo chambers”, according to a research published in the scientific journal PNAS

http://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9216, prevents “people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs.”

Can it be fixed?

Social media does offer opportunities for movements to emerge and bring the debate forward, such as the #MeToo movement, that is actually forcing change in organizations, including in the political sphere.

So there is positivity on social media. However, how to make two opposite movements actually talk to each other to find common ground?

How to leverage social media so that they can foster a more constructive dialogue among people with diverging views? Should politicians give the example first?

 

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8 thoughts on “Does Social Media Deepen Political Divide?

  1. Hello,

    I completely agree with everything you mentioned in your post, about politicians using social media as leverage to reach out to new potential voters. In today’s society the best way to reach out and hear from new voters (Generation Z) in my opinion would be to utilize social media and social networks. Although many politicians seem to use the digital platforms “incorrectly” I still believe they hope to showcase what they have to offer to the public. Despite oftentimes the later, the platforms do offer the politicians a way to reach out and speak upon grand topics with the public. When you related your post to the #MeToo movement, I was quite impressed as I agree moments and events like that are what’s forcing change in not only government organizations, but the workforce in general.

    • Thanks for your thought!
      I am just hoping at some point politicians will be better at showcasing their propositions and reduce aggressive language to encourage people to exchange ideas more than insults.

  2. Thanks for your post. I do believe that social media has the potential to impact social change. I also think it has the ability to empower masses of mob mentality; echo chambers can be a dangerous thing. We will never move forward or reach reconciliation if we just remain in our own corners with proverbial earmuffs on. Unfortunately I think the change you speak of has to come from the individual. Perhaps there should be a mass movement to end political divide? That’s likely what will happen if we continue down this road. #closetheechochamber #unite

    • Thanks for your comments. I love the hashtags!
      I still think politicians could give an impulse. But ultimately, I agree something needs to change at the individual level, which could take much time.

  3. Whenever I think of social media and politics I immediately think of maturity – and how so many of our politicians just don’t have the emotional maturity to be able to have a professional exchange in any capacity, especially online where the thumb types faster then the brain thinks.

  4. That’s an interesting take. When watching debates in Congress or Parliament, the childish aspect of some behaviors definitely crosses my mind. This translates into social media platforms for some. Maybe we need the governments to better train Representatives/Senators about behavior on social media to encourage dialogue as opposed to fight? Schools/universities could start that training as well while people are still young and receptive

  5. Hey Yali, when reading your post I was reminded of the Egyptian political revolution of 2011-2014. The entire movement could be traced back to the influence of Facebook. I also believe it comes down to individuals, but there’s such a huge gap in education in both modernized and third world countries. I get scared if I think about it too much. Social Media influence is in its infancy still.

  6. That’s an interesting thought. I think the depth and influence of social media can be scary. But I also think that when we think of the positive opportunities such as fund raising or campaigns that change real life for the better such as #MeToo, then hope wins! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, as a society, continue to fix the flaws in social media, especially since, as you said, it is in its infancy.

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