By Joe Badalamenti
As the most innovative breakthrough in 21st century communication, social media has revolutionized the world of communication. Users have the power to share any thought, picture or video that comes to mind and display it for the world to see. Moreover, users can come together and form online communities, whether for something serious such as an awareness campaign or a lighthearted group chat. Despite these positives, frequent usage of these sites has led to the development of some significant issues. Forums and communities have become hyper-politicized and polarized; many of these have no business being political. There are many causes for these changes, but the primary two categories which I will discuss are the spread of misinformation and direct and indirect censorship. After years of compounding, these issues can cause significant problems within society.
Polarization and politicization share several causes. Both are caused by the spread of misinformation, mainly by media and political institutions. Because social media is an ideal medium to spread information, journalists, political organizers, and activists frequently use these sites to spread ideas or news stories. The main issue with this is that journalists will publish articles with clickbait headlines while politically motivated actors will often resort to ad hominem attacks towards their opponents. These tactics are used to create and maintain a specific narrative or worldview explained by political values. The spread of this misinformation can be attributed to two different causes. Firstly, there is the primary demographic of social media: adolescents and young adults. Both groups are more susceptible to misinformation, considering they have little to no experience with how the world works, and are more likely to think in binaries. As these individuals are exposed to misinformation or one-sided narratives, they become polarized. Eventually, as polarization infects more individuals, echo chambers form. These echo chambers reinforce the binary, and prevent their inhabitants from being exposed to different viewpoints. Even when debate can occur, polarization can make it difficult to engage with opposing views as it can be quite difficult if you encounter someone who only seeks to confirm their own biases. Secondly, misinformation also spreads as a result of the nature of human psychology. Social media sites have been engineered to be highly addictive. This is achieved through rewarding users for popular and/or frequent posts. Moreover, typical users are apt to share posts which provoke strong emotions. As a result, social media posts which evoke emotions such as anger or shock are easily spread throughout these sites. This means that tactics such as clickbait or strong emotional appeal will be incentivized by the algorithms which control these sites. While these stories may look appealing, they frequently leave out or hide vital information needed to comprehend a situation.
Censorship is another primary cause of the polarization and politicization of social media. Censorship is mainly done through moderation of these sites. While moderation is not inherently a bad thing, the issue is that moderation is asymmetrically enforced. Moderation is often sought by frequent users of social media who will likely be polarized. Once they obtain moderation powers, the new moderators will use it to blacklist or even ban individuals who spread ideas contrary to their narrative. This is even starting to affect mainstream media institutions such as the New York Times, who recently withdrew an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton. In his writing, he advocated for the use of the National Guard in response to recent civil unrest and riots. Moderation powers are limited, however, as banning a large enough number of individuals would cause outrage. Additionally, these individuals will have an audience dedicated enough to follow them to different platforms. For these individuals, cancel culture is used to suppress their voice. Canceling usually results from two different cases. Either the individual says or does something which the mob does not approve of, or the person associated with a person or group merely holds opposing views from the mob. Either way, it’s a mechanism used to enforce conformity within these groups. There is no nuance or fair trial with cancel culture, leading to many innocent people losing their jobs or positive public image. The only way to prevent cancelation is to fully endorse the ideas of the mob, no matter how absurd they are. Thus, fringe ideas get promoted, while moderate ideas which dissent against the main narrative are either blacklisted or removed completely. Cancel culture has also been used to force businesses or organizations to take or remove certain political stances. This changes the competition mechanism from quality or price to how closely this business shares a given mob’s political views. While boycotts can be useful to discourage unethical practices, canceling businesses could have negative effects on the economy.
The results of these issues are not hard to see. One can look no further than the popular social media site Twitter. Twitter is by far the worst example of this problem. If you go to any political section, such as the current president’s feed, you’ll be greeted to a wave of childish bickering; it makes you question how these people are even adults. If you go to any ‘trending’ hashtag, you’ll find madness more often than not. Speaking of the trending tab, you will probably encounter some insane message somewhere on the tab, whether it’s a far right account trying to convince the public of QAnon, or a leftist trying to abolish the police. This is a result of the 280-character limit placed on each post. Because of this, threads which convey nuanced thoughts are swept aside for short and witty responses. Of course, there are impacts that can be measured. According to a 2020 CATO institute poll, 60% of respondents polled feel they have political views that they are afraid to share. This occurs because opinions which were thought to be normal five years ago—supporting law enforcement, for example—have been labeled “racist” or “problematic,” while stronger opinions could get you fired or expelled. As such, many have become silent, though they have not changed their opinions. This means that the mob will continue to spread their views while they believe they are in the majority as there is no one to challenge them. At the same time, these radicals continue to push further away from the center, demanding more and more.
There’s also the fact that people are reading less. A study from ACM Transactions on the Web found that most people don’t read much of an average webpage. In fact, the typical person reads less than a third of all the text on a web page which contains up to 1250 words. This is the key to why misinformation is spread. Even if an article contains no narrative, if someone sees a clickbait title and reads only a fraction of the article they will likely be unaware of the entirety of the situation. This is an issue because, in order to fully understand the complexity of subjects such as current events, you must be able to pay attention to all of the details involved and make judgments about the validity of arguments.
One of the most frightening impacts from these developments is the reliance on emotion or feelings., resulting in the emergence of the so-called “social media outrage machine.” The outrage machine is cyclic in nature. First, media companies rush to cover an emotional news story. Because this story is covered so early, many key details relevant to understanding the situation are still unknown. With everyone’s blood boiling, many will go on social media and give a response. This response could take the form of a radical policy proposal, an insult, or even some call to action. These posts become amplified, turning the incident into a national news story. Eventually, more details will come out, revealing the nuance of the situation. By the time they are revealed, however, they will be overshadowed by previous coverage and reaction. Because of the outrage machine, many people now see political opponents as literal dangers to their well-being. If the outrage machine isn’t controlled, the divisions already occurring will only get worse. In order to control the outrage, we must be patient and control our responses. It may seem difficult to learn to control your feelings, but understand that reality is rarely as shocking as it is portrayed by social media. Additionally, institutions, primarily schools and news organizations, should have a role in controlling this outrage. Since they have an obligation to educate their members, these institutions should be speaking out against this kind of behavior. However, many do not seem interested in speaking out, and some are even encouraging it. If this cycle is not controlled, harm and polarization will continue to multiply.
It’s clear that a constant use of social media can cause problems within individuals and the functioning of society. Individuals become less proficient at controlling their emotions and attention while society becomes more polarized as conflict arises. While I am not advocating for a ban of social media, it is important to understand the dangers of overreliance.