This article puts forth the interplay of politics and media, particularly social media, and how it has led to a more polarised world.
Political polarisation can be said to be a divergence in opinions to ideological extremes. It often reinforces and deepens the subterranean hostility between the two ends of the political spectrum. However, these extremes will continue to exist, so will the stark difference between them, and so will the urge to suppress the other and the high intolerance to different perspectives. Media channels with certain agendas and social media sites only add fuel to this flame of intolerance.
What has contributed to the rise in political polarisation?
Media in any form has tremendous power to shape people’s beliefs and thoughts. This can be utilised for the better or worse, depending on who is wielding it and how. One of the outcomes of the prevalence of media and social media across the world is the circulation of half-truths. The recent documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, has unveiled how the seemingly infinite data on social media has distorted facts and truth, especially when politics come into play.
The spread of misinformation through media platforms manipulates the opinions and thoughts of individuals. Traditional media platforms and social media demonise the opposition, further deepened by the circulation of fake news. With the abundance of fake news bombarded on media platforms, it is difficult to conclude what is right or wrong. This is because a fine line exists between truth and lies, and one’s personal opinion or ideology can taint the news. Fake news hinders the unfolding of facts to the general population and is usually motivated by staunch ideologies or sentiments against a few communities.
With the meteoric rise of social media over the last 2 decades, companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have designed algorithms that filter content and ensure that the users receive their news on feeds tailored according to their preferences. This results in users knowingly or unknowingly receiving information from a single viewpoint that aligns with their personal biases. They consume and share this information without fact-checking the details. This increases the spread of misinformation, polarising communities and avoiding different perspectives that can enhance or change one’s opinion on some issues. It is thus quite easy for individuals to build narratives guided by personal, political, or malicious agendas.
WhatsApp is another popular tool used to spread misinformation. Fake news spreads quickly as these lengthy message forwards are often made to sound real. The usage of proficient language, sophisticated words, visual aids such as images and citations, and selective facts mask the inaccuracy of fake news. These forwards that circulate misinformation are usually xenophobic and promote surveillance and hypernationalism, thus having damaging consequences and further polarising communities.
Traditional media is fuelling polarisation in an indirect manner as well. In many traditional newsrooms, activity on social media has itself become news. The large media houses frequently resort to their political affiliations whilst presenting information to the public. Reporters can be consumed by hyper-emotionality, giving in to fake news often masked to seem real. Thus, news, as we know it, has become a propaganda and sensationalising tool that does not further a critical rational discourse. Demonising the opposition and wreaking havoc in the name of debates on live television is a daily sighting.
But the question is, do these channels and platforms endorse the misinformation campaign?
How does social media impact the polarisation of news?
Research has shown that most people get their daily news from social media sites. Many social media companies put less of an emphasis on unbiased news and more on engagement, thus causing posts with strong and emotional language to gain traction. A holistic and articulated report by an expert will contain data, facts, and inferences that cannot be easily understood by everyone. Thus, it receives less engagement over social media.
Meanwhile, politicians or partisans who wish to spread their message or opinions through social media can use this algorithm to their advantage. Thus, if they want to maximise their impact on Twitter, they resort to more moral and emotive vocabulary for their post to reach a more extensive, hypersensitive, and vulnerable audience that aligns with their ideologies.
Surprisingly, this widely dangerous source grasps traditional media as well. Cable news is also influenced by the content displayed on social media. The hyperemotional language used on social media itself becomes news, as reporters turn tweets into headlines that can generate fear on the “other side”. In this way, the whole news cycle shifts towards more polarising and emotionally laden content. The reporter’s personal opinion, usually ignited by their sentiments, taint the news mediated to the public. Thus, their affiliation with political parties is evident in the news reported, having an enormous impact on designing the way the public thinks.
Can political polarisation and antagonism be prevented?
Over the past year, social media sites are attempting to curb misinformation that has increased immensely with the global coronavirus pandemic’s start. Social media companies have constantly fact-checked content posted on their platforms to reduce the spread of fake news. These networks also report, withhold, censor, or add tags to posts inciting hatred toward any community and mentioning whether the information is accurate.
For example, the suspension of Donald Trump’s accounts on almost every social media site, including platforms like Spotify, exposes the measures being taken to prevent the incitement of hate and offensive speech. While this works internationally, the Indian government has taken to Twitter, asking the company to withhold accounts on their command. This hampers the efforts to curb political polarisation, increasing it even further as the different perspectives are suppressed under the garb of anti-nationalism.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp has indicated the number of times a message is forwarded to make readers aware that the content of the message can be false. The increase in fact-checking sites and research platforms gives an unbiased perspective of the news, providing a well-rounded input on current and worldly affairs. Even though these solutions are commendable, social media’s toxicity, authoritarian governments, and misinformation can continue to polarise communities online and in reality. Preventing polarisation is a utopian dream as the political spectrum will never cease to exist.
Suppressing voices—the freedom of speech—to prevent the spread of fake news invades basic fundamental and human rights. Media and distorted truths can break communities apart or bring about a sense of unity—a double-edged sword embedded in the way we function in society today and cannot collectively live without.
Hence, we need to find a solution that can accommodate varied perspectives, increase the inflow and validity of authentic news, decrease the spread of deceiving misinformation and rescue the strong resentment that comes with political polarisation.
Check out our article on both sides of the Toolkit Case and the arrest of Disha Ravi.
Article by Ruhi Nadkarni, Team ulaunch.