Updated: Nov 14
More than half of the global population uses social media. The average daily usage among the users is 2 hours 27 minutes as of January 2022. Social media is a relatively new creation, a creation of the 21st century. Despite its recentness, undeniably, it rapidly took over and quickly became a natural part of our daily lives. But have you ever started to wonder what are its impacts on our society? On your personal life and beliefs? On your relationships? On your political views?
Maybe that few hours per day spent on Instagram have more effect on our lives than we would think.
There is no doubt that social media affects our lives in one way or another. Negative body image, mental health issues, and unhealthy sleeping patterns are just a few of the many problems that have emerged as a consequence of the Age of Social Media.
We are more stressed, more anxious and lastly; our society is perhaps more divided than ever.
Social media platforms make it quick and easy for people to exchange ideas and gather information. We can participate in discussions and connect with like-minded people. We can share ideas and advertise concepts we agree with. So what is the dark side? How do social media platforms influence politics and contribute to polarization?
Political polarization is the process through which the political attitudes of the public move from the center, toward ideological extremes. The degree of political polarization in a society indicates the extent to which public opinion is split into two opposing extremes. Polarization is dangerous as it widens the gap between political and social groups, making it harder to see eye to eye. Having different opinions is not the problem, it is a natural phenomenon. However, hatred towards other groups, unwillingness to listen to others, and ignorance are indeed dangerous.
Before the internet era, media outlets through which people gathered information included mostly newspapers, the television, and the radio. These information channels did not customize their content to consumers' preferences as they did not have the necessary means to do so. Therefore, they provided a more balanced picture including views from all sides, which is crucial especially when talking about ideologies and politics.
Jumping to the present, in many cases, social media platforms are the places where teenagers and the youth get most of their information. The role of social media platforms in politics and electorate results now become undeniable.
For example, it is said that Trump would have never become president without the help of Facebook and Twitter. India's last election was called "the Whatsapp election". In Germany, a youtube video attacking the country's largest conservative party (CDU) had a huge effect on the success of the party's campaign in the last few days.
Part of the problem is that most of the conversation about the topic after the video went viral, took place online, without the presence of politicians or anyone who could have functioned as a mediator. As we all have experienced, comment sections can quickly become forums of heated arguments, where one can be easily influenced and convinced based on information, which often lacks evidence.
So does social media really have the same function as newspapers, radio, and television? Do social media platforms only seek to provide neutral information from both sides to the public? Or rather, are we being tricked to see what they want us to see and believe what they want us to believe?
Microtargeting is a marketing strategy that relies on the consumer's demographic, psychographic, geographic, and behavioral data to predict individuals' buying behavior, interests, opinions, and influence that behavior with the help of a hyper-targeted advertising strategy. (Pahwa, 2018)
It is widely known that our feed on Twitter, Instagram, or on any other social media platform is not just a mixture of randomly chosen content. It is carefully tailored to the consumers' tastes and interests. Each time we click on something and we like or dislike a post we provide clues for the algorithm. Based on these clues, the system customizes our feed based on what currently interests us.
Are you planning to travel somewhere? Freshly engaged and looking for wedding venues or the perfect dress? Are you fed up with the current economic situation and looking for a solution?
Each click, each like, and each comment gives the algorithm more information, and as we know: knowledge is power.
The human factor
Add to the equation the fact that as individuals, we tend to accept facts that resonate with our beliefs much more easily, than accept information that goes against what we stand for at the moment. This "feature" of humans is called confirmation bias.
In other words, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, perceive, favor, and absorb information that confirms or supports one's existing opinions or values.
Because of the algorithm of social media platforms, we do not even have to search for content that supports our beliefs or ideas. It is already on our feed just waiting to be seen, liked, commented on, and shared.
Without seeing any information from the other side and without being provided balanced views, getting deeper and deeper in one's belief about something, or in one's political identity (no matter how radical) is within arms reach.
Many believe that our confirmation bias combined with the uncontrolled nature of social media platforms is indeed a huge driving force behind the recent increase in political polarization. By constantly being exposed to microtargeting, anyone can be easily persuaded without even noticing. It is unbelievably easy to fall into the trap of propaganda, fake news, and one-sided arguments which can result in embracing unbalanced, biased opinions.
Despite all that has been said, I believe social media is not necessarily evil if used consciously and carefully. It is important to always make sure that the information we see comes from a credible source. Second-guessing the contents we are faced with is a good way to avoid being fooled or influenced. If you are interested in a certain topic, gather knowledge from different sources, from different people.
Be skeptical. Be critical. Be curious. And last but not least, always respect and seek to understand the other side.
Bail, Christopher A., Lisa P. Argyle, Taylor W. Brown, John P. Bumpus, Haohan Chen, M. B. Fallin Hunzaker, Jaemin Lee, Marcus Mann, Friedolin Merhout, and Alexander Volfovsky. 2018. “Exposure to Opposing Views on Social Media Can Increase Political Polarization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (37): 9216–21. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804840115.
Centola, Damon. 2020. “Why Social Media Makes Us More Polarized and How to Fix It.” Scientific American. October 15, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-social-media-makes-us-more-polarized-and-how-to-fix-it/.
Molla, Rani. 2020. “Social Media Is Making a Bad Political Situation Worse.” Vox, November 11, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/21534345/polarization-election-social-media-filter-bubble.
De-Wit, Lee, Sander Van Der Linden, and Cameron Brick. 2019. “Are Social Media Driving Political Polarization?” Greater Good. January 16, 2019. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_media_driving_political_polarization.
About the author:
My name is Réka and I am from the quite small, but beautiful country of Hungary. I currently live in Madrid, Spain; a country of sunshine,
tapas, orange juice, and pure positivity.
I study International Relations, a subject area that is precious to my heart, as I love everything connected to social sciences, politics, and psychology. I love traveling and connecting with people. It is truly one of the best ways to get to know more about our beautiful, complex, and diverse World and society.
drawing by @sauyce