Imagine you had a way to reach out to 1.4 billion people. If you have a Facebook account, you do. We don’t always think of it that way, but that’s what it is.
What started as a fun way to interact with friends has quickly evolved into a political tool. For better or worse, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets have become essential parts of the political conversation in America.
But social media is a complicated animal. It does more than just provide a forum for people to share their views and ideas. We know the negative effects of social media on politics are important to understand, but we are only now beginning to investigate them thoroughly.
The Makings of Social Media Politics
Many analysts credit Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, and his subsequent two terms as president, with putting social media on the political map. After his social-media-savvy presidential administration, it was clear that from here on out, being a contender in the political arena meant understanding how social media affects politics.
If Obama’s campaign was the spark, the current crop of political personages is a blazing wildfire. Americans have flocked to their news feeds and Twitter accounts by the billions to get their political news, and for some, social media is the only place they get it.
Sitting atop this proverbial tire fire is none other than our president, Donald Trump. Trump has done more to fuel the partisan divide with his unabashedly misinformed and deliberately provocative tweets than any other candidate or world leader in history. He doesn’t wait for the conversation to come to him. Instead, he tells his followers what to think. Political bloggers, caught up in the fervor of it all, become the vehicle of his message.
Enter the Echo Chamber
The concept of an echo chamber has existed for a long time in politics. It is the idea that someone who doesn’t want to be open to new ideas can make themselves comfortable by surrounding themselves with only those who share their own beliefs.
Perhaps the most negative effect of social media on politics is its natural tendency to create an echo chamber for all Americans who use it. Instead of engaging in other forms of public conversation like town hall meetings, where attendees must consider opposing views, people choose whom they want to hear from and eliminate opposing views with a single click.
Without spending the time to visit the more moderate political blogs or best political news websites for unbiased news, people become isolated and maniacally attached to their views. They think everyone must feel the way they do, with no tolerance for different worldviews.
Going to the Ground
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the general level of conversation that takes place over social media is shallow. It is a problem, however, when our political dialogue gets lowered to this level. That is exactly what is happening.
Our president regularly mocks and berates public figures using language reminiscent of a schoolyard bully. When he does, instead of asking for some maturity, the public gleefully jumps into the ring with him, re-tweeting and Trump bashing — drawing our attention away from the much larger, and more important, conversations we should be having if we hope to heal the bitter partisanship that is tearing our democracy apart.
It’s not just Trump, either. Many political figures have held back-and-forth exchanges over social media that distract from the issues at hand and devolve into petty he-said-she-said arguments. Viewed through the lens of a customized news feed, all you see of it is what those on your side of the partisan divide agree with. It seems like your side is always “winning” — but, in the current political climate, we’re all losers.
Is Social Media Fake Media?
People need to realize the importance of exposure to different viewpoints. This might come by way of social apps for adults that move the conversation into a more mature context, or by reshaping the way we use our existing social media tools, but it must happen.
The framers of our Constitution and the laws that underpin our government had no way to predict social media or the current technological revolution. We have no built-in safeguards to keep the flaws in these systems from drastically influencing our elections. We must understand how to use them best to help move our political dialogue forward. If we don’t, they will only drag us down.
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