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.
I found this piece to be very engaging as it is relevant to patterns I, myself, have observed in American media over the past few years. I believe that information is power and for that reason it must be protected and defended. Social media has been an amazing revelation in not only technology but in interpersonal communication and society. However, because it has brought us near instantaneous access to knowledge and information, verification mechanisms are difficult to develop and maintain. Unlike traditional media outlets, social media offers any user a platform. While this is healthy for free speech, I would concur with your findings that it can be a hotbed for misinformation and disinformation. Many users are not educated enough to discern from what is truth and what is conspiracy, rumor, or outright falsehood. American politics and society as a whole has been polarized for some time now, the emergence of social media has only exacerbated this process. It has given a voice to more radical and in many instances, extremist beliefs. Politicians have, in turn, catered to these beliefs in return for popularity in election cycles. The result is a vicious cycle of political polarization. I would ask though, how does polarization on social media compare in other countries? Particularly, are there variances in the degree of polarization between nations with a 2-party system (or de facto 2 party system) and those with multiparty governments? I would argue that in democracies with proportional representation electoral systems, less political polarization would be observed, because there is a greater spectrum of ideas physically represented in governing bodies. In America, the days of bipartisanship have been replaced with government shutdowns, inaction, and gridlock because the 2 party system has become so affectively polarized. The ramifications of such have trickled down into American society, where political identity has become nearly synonymous with character.
Lauren, I really enjoyed reading your post and I think social media is one of the most pertinent issues in present day American politics and will be a forefront issue in future elections. I really liked how you framed social media as an “outlet” for polarization to the masses. Social media and technology has allowed candidates, who would have initially been gatekept by their parties, to spread their platform to the public. The big example being Trump, who was able to reach audiences primarily through Twitter and he was able to build a strong and passionate base of voters. From class and the readings we have learned that polarization is bad because it weakens informal democratic norms and because people vote more in favor of partisanship opposed to preserving democracy. Social media is most relevant to Graham and Svolik’s argument of polarization because social media is deepening people’s partisanship, thus they will vote in accordance. Your article points out how how social media in the United States directly increases polarization through the spread of radicalized or false information. This is an important point because people will absorb false information if it bolsters their party, and any media that is against their party is deemed radical or fake. I think a difference between the 2016 and 2020 US election is more awareness of misinformation. I think the American public is becoming more weary of what to believe, so they just stick to ideologies because they can’t really trust what social media is presenting, especially due to third party interferences such as Russia in the 2016 US election. Regardless, if people trust what they see on social media or do not trust what they see, the result is people voting in favor of their party opposed to democracy. Overall, I think you have a great argument that social media aggravates polarization because it spreads information that further polarizes people and all people can receive this information because social media is public. A question I have after reading this article is how social media will shape the next election? Do you think we will see more candidates like Trump, candidates who are able to mobilize voters via social media? Do you think social media within the United States is more harmful than third party interference from other countries?
Hi Lauren! I just read another blog post on the same subject, but with a different perspective. The other blog post touched on a different subject, which was how there is too much censorship in social media which is impairing American’s rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These infringements on freedoms granted by the Constitution are signs of democratic erosion to a certain degree, but I completely agree with you that misinformation is just as threatening- if not more- than censorship. Social media is a platform that allows for literally anyone to post literally whatever they would like. Sometimes these posts are taken down if they are offensive or are filled with blatantly targeted misinformation, but many times they remain active on the social media platform. Misinformation is super threatening because it furthers the polarization that is already eroding the democracy in the United States. Especially when extremely polarized posts are supported by people who share the same political opinion, it becomes even more dangerous. It is pretty insane to me that people like you mentioned in your blog post actually believe that these social media platforms have the goal of silencing the masses. This does not make any sense because their entire business model encourages people to post whatever they’d like. But, as soon as these posts are directly hurting other people, I absolutely believe they should be taken down. For example, in Michigan prior to the 2020 presidential election, there were cases of robots communicating with people from specific neighborhoods and telling them if they wanted to vote for a certain candidate, they needed to fill in the bubble for the opposite candidate if they wanted their vote to count. This type of misinformation is vindictive and has a deliberate political motive. The debate between censorship and misinformation is not going away anytime soon!
This is a very interesting read and I happened to write about a similar topic. Social media is no doubt contributing to the political climate in the United States but it is a controversial issue to deal with. During the election, there were issues with censorship and flagging tweets that spread “disinformation.” The White House Press Secretary had a tweet removed when reporting about the New York Post Hunter Biden story. As long as social media is a prominent source of information, I think this will continue to be a problem. However, I do not think this is an issue that is only seen on social media. TV news outlets are also contributing to polarization. Partisan news networks such as CNN and Fox News both report very bias versions of the events taking place in America. As long as people are allowed to say what they want, it will be up to Americans to seek out reputable information. I think that it is impossible to expect all online information to be filtered and checked for accuracy. Part of having freedom of speech in the US is acknowledging that not everything you come across is true. I think this is an issue that will have to be accepted unless the government steps in and sets guidelines. It also might be beneficial if people sought out more reputable sources of information. I think it is safe to say that Twitter is not the best source of accurate news information. Even while there are issues with misinformation on social media, there are steps people can take in the present to limit political polarization. Do you think this problem would begin to resolve itself if people limited their use of Twitter and Facebook as a political platform?
This is a very well written article that covers what has been on a lot of peoples’ minds these last two general election cycles. When it comes to the Internet, we are still in its infancy stage and social media has been around for an even shorter period of time. We had no way of predicting just how impactful these almost essential facets of our lives would become. The Internet has truly globalized the world and made us more vulnerable to foreign and domestic influences, but this is not a new feature of democracy. The US has played a direct role in altering the elections of foreign countries and even assisting in overthrowing governments, this is not a new feature of politics. On the other hand, I did especially like the point you made about how polarization has spread beyond partisanship, we are truly becoming dangerously divided, but again, this is not new for our democracy. Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and polarization have existed long before the modern age and it will persist long after, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about this topic as this may have dire consequences in the future.
Hey Lauren, I completely agree with you on the fact that social media is an outlet for polarization to become more mainstream and therefore deepen the everyday divide between political parties. In addition to your many points to back this hypothesis, in most country models of democratic politics, information dissemination is a major constraint. The majority of the voters don’t have the time or energy to read thick books and articles of political theory to keep themselves updated on every act of the Congress, so they’re dependent on the media and today majorly social media. They also depend on political professionals like elected officials, campaign operatives, party staffers, lobbyists, and pundits. We can say that when information ceases to be scarce and it becomes freely and easily available to all, the fundamental problem of the polarization afflicting democratic systems would be solved. Over the past decade, the internet and major social media have made information abundant. The rise of online news gave Americans access to more information than they had ever had before. One would think with these information polarization would be reduced, however, social media has a huge tendency to make people much more polarized by sharing information that only tells us how right we are, and that makes us more extreme.