Social media platforms can be useful tools for sharing information or reaching a wide audience, however, the way their algorithms are calibrated can lead to a one-sided, polarized view on the world.
This is especially prevalent with politics.
Election years have always been divisive times, and as the country seemingly splits apart, people are becoming further entrenched in their party affiliation.
However, this election year stands out as being particularly divisive one with the increased hostility in political discourse and a deep polarization of political ideologies, not just in communities, but in the White House as well.
In the first presidential debate, each nominee, instead of highlighting their platforms or beliefs, attempted to discredit the other and accuse them of destroying democracy itself. Even though democracy may be heading toward a change, this portrayal of combative politics is rubbing off on individuals at home and online.
Mary Caputi, a political science professor at Long Beach State, puts into perspective how the public may interpret political debates during this highly volatile time.
“The vicious tenor of discourse at the highest level of government sets an example for the rest of the country, which is unfortunate,” Caputi said. “We’ve grown used to ridicule, offensive jokes and slurs, and political speech that is short on substance and long on invective.”
Caputi said she feels that politics during this time have the “feeling of a brawl rather than a process.”
“Thankfully, there are a few adults in the room who come and break up the fight, but we are at an historic low in terms of how we conduct ourselves politically,” she said.
As Americans shelter at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, social media usage has skyrocketed. According to eMarketer, between 46% and 51% of adults in the U.S. have reported spending more time on social media since the stay-at-home orders were issued in March.
This usage, combined with algorithms in place on social media, leads to a trend of selective exposure. Most social media platforms use similar algorithms that provide content based upon what users interact with and like, and allows for users to exclude content they would rather not see, such as opposing political views.
This divisiveness creates an one-sided environment for most, allowing for dissemination of false information, a development of cognitive dissonance and increased hostility between opposing sides.
“Unfortunately, Americans are not always as community-minded as we should be,” Caputi said. “We’re a highly individualized country. The erosion in public discourse contributes to an exalted sense of individual entitlement and even narcissism.”
Caputi feels this narcissistic and hostile behavior is prevalent everywhere, an example being that her sister’s political yard sign has been vandalized twice.
One glaring example of this polarization is the politicization of the public health-mandated mask requirement at most public establishments.
Although masks have been proven by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they are seen as a political statement by some and have been the justification of implicit racism.
According to Mathew Mendez Garcia, a political science professor at CSULB, the power of the fragmented media market giving consumers the option to set preferences on their information intake can increase societal division.
“It’s so apparent now because we’ve seen a maturing of ideological platforms that allow people to disregard the traditional media,” Garcia said. “It makes it impossible to talk to someone who’s very ideological. They will disregard everything you say because they are not getting the same message as you are.”
Elizabeth Orozco, a fourth-year political science major focusing on legal studies at CSULB, said she has felt such hostility on her social media platforms.
“The majority of people I know are liberals and believe in the same things I do,” Orozco said. “But, even when a large spectrum of my followers are like-minded individuals like myself, there’s so much political, decisive and misinformation circulating.”
Orozco said she feels backlash from her peers and even friends when posting anything politically charged on social media.
“I can post about Hailey Bieber supporting Biden, and I get a few of my friends start talking ‘shit’ about who I support,” she said. “Honestly it’s gotten to the point where I need to disassociate myself and take social media breaks.”