The Huffington Post: Is Social Media Polarizing Political Debate?

(The Huffington Post 15/6/2016) The tragic events in Orlando, once again, exposed just how dichotomized our political discourse has become. One group called for gun-control, while the other felt the right to bear arms, for self-defense, was vindicated. And religious motivations were blamed entirely, or considered irrelevant.

But proponents of these opposing views aren’t talking with each other—they’re talking at each other. And though social media facilitates news, opinion and idea flow, it may, paradoxically, be complicit in stifling progressive political conversations.

Facebook, Twitter and online news platforms allow us to share, discuss and access live data at our fingertips. It meets our demand for timely, concise and simple information, to accommodate the demands of our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles.

But the very streamline nature of social media may just be amplifying the noise of extreme—and simplistic—viewpoints, and sidelining the depth, nuance and complexity that truly comprise political issues. The center ground cannot compete for pace and plainness in a society that seeks trigger words, click-bait headlines, platitudes and 140 characters to make quick judgments, explanations and associations.

Research published by The Economist in November illustrated how far left and right parties in Europe were broadly more popular than their centrist counterparts on social networks, in terms of Facebook “likes,” Twitter followers and shared Tweets. Although acknowledging the more “prolific” use of Twitter by the strongly left- and right-wing parties, it added that their popularity may also be because “[s]ocial media reward starkness, not subtlety….Politicians on the fringes can react to news faster than their moderate counterparts, whose statements are carefully scrutinized before publication.”

And, though there is enhanced access to information online, we can also be more selective about it. We can filter what we want to see and who we want to interact with, enabling our ‘newsfeeds’ to become self-reinforcing echo chambers. The use of recommendation algorithms have also been criticized for only linking users to issues that ‘agree’ with them.

Social science studies have already demonstrated the human bias toward like-minded individuals, and self-fulfilling information. A 2014 study by U.S. think tank the Pew Research Center which mapped U.S. Twitter discussions found that political topics formed distinct polarized groups—often liberal and conservative camps—which largely interacted independently of each other. In other words opposing groups aren’t challenging each other, but talking amongst themselves.

With this enhanced online opinion binary, each side feels victimized by the other as the subtleties that connect and soften their viewpoints are lost. The end result is often a paralysis of debate, comprised of black and white rhetoric, defensiveness and ultimately a spat between restrictive political correctness and fear mongering.

Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of U.K. counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, warned of the risks emanating from the intensified left-right dichotomy—particularly on what he termed the “global islamist insurgency”—in aCNN interview in November. “[L]et’s remain levelheaded and avoid being…blinded by our left eye or popping a blood vessel in our right eye,” said Nawaz. “Because both of those conclusions would render us blind.”

The social media response to recent events illustrate just how levelheadness is being squeezed out, and progressive debate is being lost. The European ‘migrant’ crisis became an issue of “open doors or building walls,” while “more or less immigration” has become the crux of debate in the U.K. referendum on the European Union. And, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were expectedly met with the same “blame religion or foreign policy” schism.

With some 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide, according to social insight consultancy We Are Social—and, set to grow as new consumers gain internet access—online opinions will become an increasingly important battleground for global, as well as national, politics.

Populists, like U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump, are already wielding it for their gain, and traditional news cycles are devoting more air-time to noisy Twitterati discussions. But if the online discourse continues in this diluted and filtered manner, the risk is that, in reflecting the electorate, politics will increasingly stagnate into a debate over polarized narratives rather than actual issues and policies.

Social media, and the internet revolution, is widely seen as an opportunity to level the information playing field. But, though it can be an instrument for education, it can also be a tool for the production of mass ignorance. It just depends how we use it.

As with any progressive debate, overcoming personal narratives, considering alternate viewpoints and scrutinizing information (and ideas) is vital, but it is even more essential when social media also has the power to entrench, narrow and simplify the world around us.

 Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at: www.theglobalprism.com

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