This election many things are at play; including, changing technology, distrust in the media and growing political polarization; how can voters make intelligent decisions? These decisions must take into account that political polarization in America is growing, according to a Pew Research study. Industry experts and students and professors at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB) have different views on the role the media, social media and technology play when it comes to politics which makes it a very complex dilemma. A survey by Mackenzie Brown, Matthew Knoke, Alexis Beck and Ben Newhouse conducted October 7th-9th using Qualtrics, resulted in 28 responses by UWGB students. The intention of the survey was to gain a better understanding on how people get their news and if their habits on social media lead to the growing gap of political polarization.
Positives and Negatives of Technology
UWGB students were asked about where they got their news from, all 28 students who took the survey said they get their news from social media along with other outlets. Selene Singerhouse, who is majoring in Democracy and Justice Studies said,“technology, especially in today’s atmosphere, is one of the main channels of passing on information. Without technology, I feel that there would be a lot less dirt that gets brought up on individuals, but it would also lead to a very different, skewed idea of what America actually looks like today.”
While some see the positives of technology and social media, others are worried. With 2020 being an election year, Americans are starting to see the increase of polarization through social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook. On October 14, 2020, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s Twitter account was suspended after she shared information about the son of Joe Biden and his correlation with Ukraine. However, Mrs. McEnany was told that she could have her account back if she deleted the tweet regarding Hunter Biden. This incident caused a lot of distrust in the platform by conservatives as they feel that they are being censored.
Netflix released a documentary called The Social Dilemma, which is trending in their top ten for the month of September. The documentary talks about the dangers of algorithms through social media platforms people use daily. Engineers continue to build algorithms to engage their users in continuing to use their app. The documentary gives the idea that these algorithms could be to blame for the political polarization in this country but Associate Professor Aaron Weinschenk of the Public and Environmental Affairs department, believed differently, “most research shows that people have fairly balanced “media diets” (i.e., they don’t just look at sources that fit with their predispositions).”
UWGB students were asked if they feel their newsfeed aligns with their political views, and the majority said either yes (14.29%) or sometimes (78.57%). About 7% of the students said no to feeling that their newsfeed aligns with their political view. Those who did not feel that their newsfeed aligned with their political view may be the ones who created an environment that values opinions from all parties. Max Crnkovich, Political Science Major and Senior at UWGB can attest to this. He believes that “technology plays the role of being a tool. Social media specifically does create an echo chamber (an environment that a person creates filled with their own beliefs and does not consider other alternative ideas,) but we have our own choices to be inside those “chambers”. I watch Republicans and Democrats talk about various things which is why I get Democrat and Republican ads on YouTube.”
Distrust in the media might be playing a part in the polarization.
So, if research shows that the people’s news feeds are balanced, why are they seeing such a rapid growth in political polarization? According to Gallup, they reported that only 41% of Americans trust the media. It’s no surprise then that the majority (62%) of UWGB students in this survey do not trust the media. “The purpose of the media is to be the 4th estate, to be the people’s voice against government,” said Nolan Bennett, Assistant Professor of Democracy and Justices Department at UWGB. Instead, the media is selling the people’s attention to advertisers. “One thing I always tell my students is that the media tends to cover stories that are new and exciting (to draw people in) and events/topics that generate emotional reactions. After all, most media outlets are businesses and are interested in building an audience and selling ads,” said Professor Weinschenk
Professor Bennett, said, “There are a lot of things I am worried about with the media today. Media’s relationship to capitalism deeply worries me. The increased consolidation of media outlets, the fact that Jeff Bezos owns Washington Post really worries me.” Americans are not sure what news outlets to trust as they feel that they have an agenda. Since President Donald Trump has been in office, he often uses the phrase, “fake news,” which has created more distrust in the media from the right according to Brookings.
Fake news lives in all the social media platforms.
In addition to distrust in the media, fake news could be another factor to political polarization. An MIT study said fake news on twitter spreads six times faster than true news. The term, fake news, means different things to different people. According to the University of Michigan Library, fake news means news stories that are false. This means the stories are fabricated, no verifiable quotes, facts or sources. According to the survey 27 of the 28 students believe in fake news. Of those 27 students, they see fake news on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok. “Pizzagate” is a good example of fake news. In November of 2016, Hilary Clinton’s emails were hacked and published on Wikileaks. After the public saw an email between her and the owner of Comet Ping Pong, people started speculating that Hilary and her campaign was apart of a sex trafficking ring. The FBI did confirm that this theory was inaccurate.
“Fake news should concern every citizen, because we can no longer rely on traditional news filters to screen out inaccuracies, fabrications, and misrepresentations,” said Phillip Clampitt, Professor and Chair of UWGB Communication department. When it comes to social media, Facebook and Twitter are trying to be better with reducing the amount of misinformation. “I am heartened by companies like Twitter and Facebook finally starting to do a little bit to try and counter misinformation. I don’t know how much I really trust the people behind that,” said Professor Bennett.
It’s time to come together.
In order to stop the decrease in political polarization, USA TODAY reported that American’s should start calling out their party, avoid bad jokes, make social media kinder, emphasize disagreements within their party, help others imagine empathy and avoid repeating misinformation. While these are great ideas, will they help bridge the gap?
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