Wall of Separation: How Social Media Distorts Our Politics

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When we think about social media, most people in our generation see it as a force of good in the world. In the last decade, Facebook has allowed society at large to witness the documentation of police brutality, criminal activity, and acts of heroism alike. The creation of crowdfunding initiatives for individuals faced with insurmountable burdens is commonplace. Large corporations are now under the surveillance of their customers, and an inconsequential public relations misstep can easily spiral into a multi-billion dollar loss of equity. Twitter was especially instrumental in the mobilization efforts of protesters during the Arab Spring in 2010-2012. At its worst, social media can often seem to be a monumental waste of time, but that’s usually the extent of the criticism for our beloved social media platforms.

The election of Donald Trump and the noteworthy events occurring since his inauguration are troubling - to say the least. The recent “Unite the Right” rally and subsequent violence taking place on the 11th and 12th of August in Charlottesville, and the President’s inability to condemn white supremacy and neo-Nazis were both abhorrent and bizarre. His behaviour is undeniably inflammatory; several white supremacist leaders have taken to Twitter by thanking the President for his failure to appropriately condemn them or their actions.

Instead of blaming Russian hackers or the emergence of alt-right groups in the United States for the current state of affairs, we should examine the ground upon which these battles are fought. Facebook and Twitter are not innocent and unbiased platforms. In particular, Facebook uses a series of complicated algorithms in the creation of a personalized “Dashboard” by suggesting articles, images, videos, and other items of interest most likely to appeal to the account holder. This is generally tied to commercial interests by targeting individuals with specific advertisements. I’m not suggesting that these corporations are openly promoting the destabilization of government or society, but these algorithms can still have significant, long-term consequences.

In 2008, constitutional scholar and law professor Cass Sunstein published his influential book Nudge – Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health and Happiness. The book uses studies involving psychology and behavioural economics to promote what he calls “active engineering of choice architecture”. The best example of this architecture is the decision to force people to opt-out of being organ donors when they receive their driver’s licence, instead of asking people to opt-in. The results of such studies are staggering, and demonstrably defend the importance and benefits of choice architecture.

In a talk at the Harvard Law School in mid-2016, Sunstein was given the opportunity to re-examine his Nudge hypothesis within an entirely new political environment. He explored several new studies involving the psychological impact of political persuasion when surrounded by a majority or a minority opinion, and within a particular geographic location. Once again, his findings were breathtaking: when people are surrounded by other people who hold the same or similar political views, they become more likely to reject opposing views, or even entertain the notion that the opposing side might have something relevant to say. When minority views are held in places where the majority views are in direct contradiction (e.g. Republicans in California or Democrats in Texas), people actually become more open to hearing these opposing views.

In other words, the rising flamboyance of anti-Semitism and white supremacy on the alt-right, and the matching of these forces by organizations such as ANTIFA on the far-left, is a by-product of an entire generation of Americans who are no longer willing (or capable) of exchanging views with their political opposition. This is also a problem in Congress: in the 60s and 70s, Republicans and Democrats would often cross the aisle for a particular vote. Today, the ideological differences between the two parties are so pronounced that Southern Democrats are now more liberal than Northern Republican representatives.

So how does all this relate to our beloved social media platforms? In short, social media is making us more vulnerable to the rhetoric of political extremity. When those closer to the center work together, extremists are relegated to the fringes of what society deems acceptable. This ever-increasing polarization and partisanship is toxic to political debate.

Some potential solutions I have to put forth: don’t scoff and scroll past things you disagree with, and don’t unfollow those peers whose political opinions make you cringe - those are the very articles and videos you should explore. Seek out things that evoke a strong response in you. When you do read or view materials on social media, whether or not they support your underlying beliefs, check the facts and figures. In these complicated times, take the time to make up your own mind after having thoroughly examined the issues, from multiple perspectives. And last but in no way least, please do not rely on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter for all of your news; while it might not be ‘fake’, it is personalized for your expressed political palate.