Sam Rosenberg: Political polarization in the digital age

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 4:57pm

It all started with that historic debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

As the first debate ever televised in U.S. history, with an estimated 70 million viewers, this face-off between the stern, older Republican nominee and the charming, young Democratic nominee would ultimately change the course of political consciousness in America. As the story goes, the people who watched that debate on TV believed Kennedy won, while those listening on the radio thought Nixon had it in the bag.

The differences in both these mediums were key. Because television was developing into the dominant mass medium for American news and entertainment, it not only shifted our society’s perception of politics, but also showcased how radically different our political opinions were becoming.  

Much like how television changed the way our parents and grandparents saw American politics, social media is changing the way we are seeing American politics. Through the stream-of-consciousness cesspool of Twitter to the free-flowing platform of Facebook, social media users are given greater access to information and thus greater agency to discuss, share and boast about their political views.

People can follow accounts that feed them condensed, albeit biased, tidbits of information about the most recently discussed topics in politics. Additionally, popular memes on Twitter and funny videos on YouTube and Vine provide both humor and insight into everyday politics by highlighting the absurdity of it all. Since the 2016 presidential election began, social media has become the epicenter for the angst of the American people, with the two 2016 presidential debates thus far being no exception.

In addition to the hundreds of posts trending on Twitter about Donald Trump’s actions during both debates — his lurking behind Hillary Clinton, constant sniffing and continuously incoherent remarks — the most surprising came from Ken Bone, one of the undecided voters who asked questions during the second debate. His now iconic red sweater and spiffy appearance made him an overnight Internet sensation, with the hashtag #KenBoneFacts trending at 52k tweets on Twitter. As comedian Kumail Nanjiani perfectly pointed out, Ken Bone’s sudden popularity might be a sobering indicator for how tired and scared people are about this election.

And while social media can enhance our awareness of what’s going on in the world of politics, it doesn’t necessarily have a drastic effect on our drive to vote. A perfect example of this, as many reading this will probably guess, is Donald Trump’s disparaging and ugly comments about sexual assault that went viral last week. We’ve seen our fair share of dumb comments made by politicians over social media, but Trump’s leaked braggadocious remarks about grabbing a woman’s genitals is the cream of the character assassination crop. But have these comments actually changed Trump’s looming social media presence? Recent polls from NBC/WSJ show suggest that he’s beginning to trail behind Clinton. Yet Twitter Counter shows that the Donald’s Twitter followers have more or less stayed the same, increasing slightly from 12.2 million to 12.3 million followers since the second debate.  

This somewhat makes sense, as according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of registered voters who follow political figures on social media has doubled since 2010. However, social media has had a relatively neutral influence on actual civic engagement or voting, according to an October 2015 meta-analysis from Journalist’s Resource.

Considering how often we consume content on social media, this seems to be a rather confusing, paradoxical statistic. How is that so many people are ranting and raving about politics on the Internet, but it doesn’t increase their likelihood to vote in a general election? Why do social media users seem to be passionate about national issues, but are somehow aren’t putting those passions to good use?  

My only guess is this: social media can be a great space to connect with others who share similar views, but it also acts as a negative expanse that divides our country into a polarized mess. Is this necessarily our fault? Not really. As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan once famously quipped, “the medium is the message.”

In other words, the medium — in this case, social media — can influence how the message — whether through a tweet, a Facebook post, a Snapchat story or a YouTube video — is perceived. The posts we read and watch online dictate how we perceive this election, which so far seems to made out by media outlets as a ridiculous, finger-pointing spectacle instead of a hard look on real, important issues.

As American citizens, and especially millennials, it’s up to us to really look at what’s at stake in the next four years of the presidency. Though research has shown that social media doesn’t have much of an effect on voting, we should make it so, whether through online dialogues or discussions. It’s fine to make memes and jokes about the election, but they shouldn’t distract us from the reality of the election. If we really do care about the issues that concern our country, then social media should be a productive space for learning and practical thinking and not just for biased bashing.

Author’s note: The voter registration deadline for Michigan was Tuesday, but make sure to vote on Nov. 8 if you’re already registered.