As the technological 21st century continues to advance, social media platforms become more numerous and more influential in American society. Though the Constitution grants freedom of the press, the increasing platforms of press outlets can counteractively spread misinformation and disinformation in the technological age. Peter Pomerantsev writes “more information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of subversion.” Now, America is faced with one critical question: is social media healthy for democracy, or is it another outlet for disinformation, misinformation and propaganda deteriorating mutual toleration and heightening polarization in American society?
American social media has played an important role in both 2016 and 2020 presidential elections; however, the United States is not the only country with mass social media outlets being used for political messages. Luiza Bandeira and Roberta Braga examined the use of social media platforms in the highly contentious 2018 Brazilian election (Bandeira, Braga). They attributed the ability to spread disinformation and misinformation easily to the highly polarized society. However, I believe that in the United States, polarization and misinformation/disinformation feed off each other and mutually reinforce one another through social media. Misinformation is false information that is spread, while disinformation is the deliberate attempt to spread false information through a form of propaganda. Through the scope of polarization, I will examine the current use of social media to spread misinformation and disinformation in American society.
The Washington Post writes about a far-left activist named Adam Rahuba who is responsible for hoax events that stir tensions between the far left and far right. The examination into “Rahuba’s activities provides a rare inside look at the work of a homegrown troll who uses social media to stoke partisan division” reports the Washington Post. Rahuba is responsible for making posts online about a flag-burning event sponsored by ANTIFA to right-wing activists. Hundreds of ring-wing counter protesters arrived at the flag burning location to discover an empty field with no flags burning in sight. The event was a hoax orchestrated by Rahuba to stir tensions between the two political parties. The Washington Post discovered that Rahuba was the man responsible behind the social media account “Left Behind USA” which promoted the event. This event highlights the polarization evident in American society to facilitate the petty wars between political parties happening on the deep web and in-person. Social media is another outlet that can be used to spread disinformation like the flag-burning event to spark tensions and misunderstandings between the extreme political poles. The event was orchestrated for no reason except to anger the far-right group that decided to counter protest the hoax. Rahuba commented that “he antagonizes far-right extremists mostly for his own amusement.” This demeaning behavior demonstrates that polarization has spread beyond just partisanship; polarization has become more evident in moral discussions and everyday behavior between political parties. The use of social media to easily spread these hoaxes and promote tensions between political parties shows its ability to deepen polarization within the United States.
Not all attempts to polarize American society through social media have been by Americans. Russian hackers created bot accounts to divide American society for both the 2016 election and the 2020 election. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used by Russian hackers to divide Americans before the election. Robert Muller’s report illuminated how Russia tried to divide the nation and undermine the 2016 presidential election. This manipulation of foreign elections would hardly be possible without the easy access to social media. Social media carried out the will of the Russian president and further divided the nation by spreading disinformation. In 2018, the House Intelligence Committee released all ads purchased by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). The ads totaled to over 3,000 just between 2015 and 2017. Representative Adam Schiff commented that “there’s no question that Russia sought to weaponize social media to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election.” The polarization sponsored by the Russian hackers carried into the polarization evident in the 2020 election. Social media disinformation is mutually reinforced by polarization by fanning the flames with more extremist posts.
As social media apps like Facebook and Twitter are beginning to tag and remove bots and false information, social media fanatics have flocked to other platforms such as Parler, Reddit, and 4Chan. An increase in Parler users was promoted by conservative officials like Brad Parscales after many Facebook accounts were shut down for spreading disinformation. Parler, a free speech promoting social media platform, is now the base for conspiracy theories and radical ideology. While efforts on Facebook’s and Twitter’s behalf are healthy to democracy to stop the spread of disinformation, the emergence of new platforms like Parler suggests the American people do not understand the effects of social media. Rather than listening to the warnings by Facebook and Twitter, people keep the same ideology and move to a different platform. This prolongs the spread of disinformation and promotes echo chambers for ideology to become more radicalized. Chris Mims writes “when you repeatedly expose people on social media to viewpoints different than their own, it just makes them dig in their heels and reinforces their own viewpoint, rather than swaying them to the other side.” This creates a more polarizing environment that decreases mutual toleration between political parties. Stopping the spread of misinformation via social media must be enforced by all social media platforms in order to stop the effect of echo chambers and radicalizing ideology. The struggle to find the truth on social media has become more of a battle with the increased use of small media platforms that do not regulate the spread of disinformation.
Social media is an outlet for polarization to become more mainstream and therefore deepen the everyday divide between political parties. The deep web provides an outlet for echo chambers and increasingly partisan views rather than a mutual understanding between different views. Rather than providing an outlet for more voices and views, social media provides an echo chamber of deepening partisanship that destroys the possibility of mutual understanding and compromise. Americans must face the hard truth about social media’s role in politics and polarization in society in order to promote mutual understanding and compromise in society.
Bandeira, Luiza. Braga, Roberta. “Brazil: Disinformation in the 2018 Elections” Disinformation in Democracies web.