Is social media creating a more polarised society?

By Aoife McDowell / November 11, 2020
Is social media creating a more polarised society

Over the last number of years, there has been an increasing debate suggesting that society as a whole is now more divided than ever.  America has been at the forefront of this debate, as it has become increasingly polarised, with tensions between the right and left eventually boiling over into riots and violent clashes on the streets of a number of cities earlier this year. The recent election results have only added fuel to the fire. With many blaming trends online for this division, I ask, is social media creating a more polarised society? 

Firstly, it is important to note that there have always been divisions within American society. Before social media existed there were disputes over election results, riots related to race and police brutality and protests on the streets. The Republicans and Democrats have never been fully united; however they have also never been as divided as they are today.

A recent study showed that three-quarters of Democrats (75%) and 64% of Republicans say that those in the other party are more closed-minded than other Americans.  In both parties, this result had increased since these questions were last asked in 2016, at a time when American society was described as being at its most divided. So is social media creating a more polarised society in America and around the world? Here’s why many people think so. 

Algorithms 

The aim of social media companies since the beginning has always been to get users to stay online and use their sites as much as possible. Over the years, these social media giants have become increasingly better at learning who a person is and what they are interested in from their online activity. This in turn meant that they could alter an individuals’ news feeds to show posts they knew the individual would like and therefore engage more with. Thus the modern day algorithm for social media feeds was born. 

The issue with this is that people increasingly experience what has been described as an “echo chamber”, meaning only views similar to that of the individual users are mimicked back to them online. Facts have become somewhat distorted, as people are no longer always getting the full picture. A large majority of people get most of their news, information and social interaction through social media. The problem is all that news, information and social interaction has been deliberately selected in correlation with what that individual is likely to enjoy and interact with.  

There is no one truth online, because everything is tailored to the individual. 

Healthy debate has become more out of reach, as it is increasingly difficult for individuals with different views on society to understand the other’s perspective. This is because individuals with conflicting views have become out of touch with each other as a result of what they see on their feeds every day, information that is directly tailored to them. Therefore, each individual has a different perception of reality, as day to day, they are both met with socially constructed worlds to suit them. There is no one truth online, because everything is tailored to the individual. 

Misinformation 

Currently, America is held up as the cautionary tale of the dangerous polarisation that can be caused by social media. In the run up to, and the aftermath of, the 2020 American election, it seems that now more than ever, both sides of American politics are unable to compromise. In recent days misinformation has been consistently spread throughout the internet to favour one side or another, including election fraud allegations, fake newspaper articles and alleged media cover ups.  

Most recently, on Monday Twitter users supporting Trump began to circulate an article from the Washington Post which claimed the newspaper announced Al Gore had won against George Bush in 2000 before the last votes were counted. They used this to promote the idea that Trump could still become president when it was statistically evident that this was no longer possible.

However, this picture was edited and the Washington Post later revealed the real headline and explained that it had been photoshopped. Despite this, it was still being tweeted and posted over and over again for hours after, on different right-wing websites and social media pages. 

The picture that was circulating online vs the real picture 

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Misinformation such as this was, and still is, commonplace on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook during the election campaign and results. This spread of misinformation, mixed in with particular algorithms, have contributed to the development of a hostile environment post-election in America. Now, many Americans are refusing to accept the election result. This seemingly insignificant way of tailoring information to individuals in society, is now helping to undermine democratic processes.  

Steps to tackle the problem 

Twitter and Facebook have taken steps in recent months to try to stop the spread of disinformation, especially during the election, by posting warning signs on factually incorrect posts. Twitter have also introduced a “get the facts” link to these posts, which when clicked will take the user to a page with factual information on the subject. 

Is social media creating a more polarised society?

 Although social media is not fully to blame for the situation in America it is clear that  it has played a significant part. The way we consume news, information and socialise with others all takes place on these platforms; however they can never be a true reflection of society as a whole while they work off algorithms. Although with social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter now recognising the problems they face with this issue and trying to tackle it, perhaps the future of social media will see less polarisation.  

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Aoife McDowell

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