Is Facebook Altering our Current Political Climate?

Over the weekend, my husband and I engaged in a conversation with a friend who is on the opposite end of the political spectrum than us; we are left-leaning while he is moderately republican. The conversation touched numerous controversial issues of that have emerged in the past months: the morality of the two presidential candidates, the Black Lives Movement and the validity of their argument and suggested policies, police brutality and the tension between individual agency and societal trends, and what we, as college students, are obligated to do about it. One thing we all simultaneously agreed on is the debilitating political polarization found on all of our Facebook feeds. We noticed that all of three of our newsfeeds followed a similar pattern; the majority of the posts aggressively support our own political views, utilizing intellectual arguments and language, while one or two posts from the opposite side of the political spectrum are presented in their most degraded and unbelievable form. The point is, rarely do I see the opposing political ideology presented as intellectual, moral, or persuasive.

From a consumer-sided view of Facebook’s political propaganda machine, it seems as though the social media algorithms are changing our nation’s political climate. Leaders from within Silicon Valley appear in Netflix’s new documentary “The Social Dilemma” claiming that social-media’s need to draw more and more screen-time from its consumers is the cause of the jarring polarization found on it’s feeds. As we show interest in a subject by looking at a post for a sustained amount of time, Facebook and other sites are intended to produce similar content in hopes to draw us in. Thus, the very design of social media algorithms are perfected modeled to dramatize, exaggerate and embellish popular news.

The article posted by the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Study: Breitbart-led Right-wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda” seems to suggest the opposite: it is not technology that is driving political opinion, rather it is political opinion that is driving the information found on technology. Their argument is compelling; the left and the right both are internalizing information differently on the internet, as demonstrated by Breitbart (Breitbart is significantly more polarized and an focused primarily on one politician). Thus, the internalization and presentation of political news as perpetuated on technological media is not symmetrical, suggesting that the polarization is not caused technology, rather mirrors the actual political climate of our nation. This information is supported by specific data graphed and analyzed.

Both conclusions are extremely alarming: either the technology we use is driving our society to be more hateful and less understanding, or our society’s views are simply already extremely non-mediating. It is probably both: at least I am compelled to believe that technology is further perpetuating our society’s already polarized political climate. While this information has not left me comforted, reading Columbia Journalism Review’s article has reminded me that my personal perspective is not always correct, although I often perceive it to be. Data examined in a new way, through the utilization of digital humanities’ techniques, opens new door of understanding and interpretation.

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3 Comments

  1. Never before have ideas been so easily spread between cultures and what a blessing it is to have the technology to translate information into different languages for easier dispersal. I totally agree with you in that technology is perpetuating our society’s polarized political climate. Phillips encourages us to pick sides and know what we stand for which is important. I also think we need to do a better job of recognizing that every comment made on the internet was made by someone who has had a unique set of life experiences that has made them think the way they do. But man the internet is such a tricky place to navigate. It seems that anything you can say is bound to anger one person or another. That’s why I tend to stick with sharing posts about dogs because who doesn’t like cute puppies?

  2. Thanks for your blog post! I agree that it’s probably a feedback loop between our views opposing compromise and our technology amplifying that–it doesn’t really have to be one or the other.

    But I especially like your connection back to digital humanities, and the need to examine data differently. I hadn’t considered digital humanities as having a purpose beyond pontificating, but this is an important purpose that ties directly to humanities questions and our technology and could make a huge difference to the world. That’s probably why he had us read these, huh…at least you made the connection!

  3. I think that Benkler et al. are a good corrective to the notion that it’s only social media platforms that are carving up our attention. Instead, they have good evidence that it is the humans who are engaging on social media—and not algorithms—that have limited perspectives and want to only read what reinforces their beliefs. Taking responsibility for the problem ourselves could, I hope, point us away from an erroneous point of view about the power of the different technologies we all interact with.

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