On March 19,2020 the first stay at home orders were announced in response to the Covid-19 virus and within the next few weeks millions of Americans stocked up on essentials and locked themselves in their homes. Under government orders we were not to leave our homes except for essential business which, for many, means working from home and adapting to a new normal. As the weeks rolled by and the number of new cases rose, the amount of outside contact began to fall. Human interaction became digital and real life facetime turned into calls over FaceTime. While there are a number of consequences of increased screen time, perhaps one of the more unexpected ones is an exacerbation of the existing political polarization in the United States.
Over the past several decades the U.S. has been on a strong trend of political polarization. A 2019 Pew Research study found that “both Republicans and Democrats express negative views about several traits and characteristics of those in the opposing party, and in some cases these opinions have grown more negative since 2016.” Examples include an increasing number of those that view the other as “immoral”, “closed minded”, “unintelligent”, and “unpatriotic”. But if you’ve ever watched the Fox News and CNN coverage for the same hot button story – this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you.
As more and more Americans become tech savvy and rely on their mobile devices, more of their information comes from online. Internet news sources are soon to overtake television and have long since outpaced newspapers – they even have the crosswords online for goodness sake! However this comes with its own unique sets of challenges. While certainly not perfect, newspapers and television stories were reviewed and bore some sort of legitimacy when they were published or put on air. However, with more and more of us relying on social media for information, the news that shows up on your screen is no longer approved by legitimate sources like the BBC. Now all it takes is a catchy headline, 280 characters, and a blue check mark next to your name.
As you’d suspect there are certainly some limitations of social media as a primary news source. A 2016 Harvard research paper explained that oftentimes messages with extreme ideologies tend to be the ones with the largest public audience. While extreme messages may be effective in reaching a large number of people, they become extremely dangerous when the information spread is inaccurate, hateful, or detrimental to the public. Basically, the way social media prioritizes content creates perverse incentives for intentionally inflammatory and inaccurate messages that spread disinformation faster than true information and creates echo chambers of polarized rhetoric across the board. Imagine the old saying ‘if it bleeds it leads’ except purposefully finding blood for the sake of a story.
While the consequences of this should already raise eyebrows, the fact that were simultaneously in a global pandemic and an election year turns things to the next level. With millions of Americans quarantining in their homes and looking for guidance through these ~uncertain times~ it is more important than ever for live-saving public health information to be easily accessible and straightforward. But, you guessed it, that is not nearly the case. From conspiracies claiming 5G as the cause to Covid to at-home that allegedly cure the deadly virus, extreme stories are at an all time high. Cable news sources take different stances on the effectiveness of masks and coverage about the effect on the economy change depending on what channel you’re on. A 2020 study from NCBI explains that this polarization of information may have been a major contributor to US Covid-19 attitudes – which makes sense considering how Americans are looking towards their trusted sources of information during such an unfamiliar time.
While both sides of these arguments will claim to be correct citing information about lives lost and the economy, one of the most dangerous outcomes stems from the fact that Covid response is such a contentious issue in the first place. Seeing as though we are a major election year, two very important issues are on the ballot. Not only are the next steps of the US Covid response on the line, but this election may also have a substantial impact on the bedrock of our democracy.
This may seem out of left field, but the American people hold a very important role in maintaining the legitimacy of our democracy. Graham and Svolik from the American Political Science Review argue that the American public’s viability as a democratic check continues to deteriorate political polarization and party extremism continue to rise. As our system of making policy becomes less reliant on collaboration and mutual cooperation, we begin to lend ourselves to the danger of strong imposing will. Granted, while the American public already has a limited ability to check our democracy, the slow erosion of the very pillars that hold it up should be of major concern.
While the election itself may not be the make or break event for our democracy, it is still absolutely critical to keep polarization in check, especially considering there is still no end to Covid in sight and the government has still comprehensively addressed the pandemic. That being said, the onus is not solely on our government to keep itself working. The burden is on us as social media consumers to reward the right messages with our attention and do the same for our politicians who intend to bring us together as Americans. It may not be as simple as it sounds, but if we’re able to turn the tide against polarization and bring down some of the heat around big issues, we can finally come together in 2020 and start off 2021 on the right foot.