Baker: Social media and the polarization of politics


By Evander Baker

Here’s a riddle:

How is it that many Americans feel like their country is being led by one of the best Presidents ever, many feel like she’s being led by one of the worst people ever, and all of them feel like America is on the verge of collapse?

There are differences between older generations that are deceased and us today, but I don’t believe it’s who is holding office now.

First, news media is constant.

Second, news media is politically polarized.

Third, news media is nitpicky.

Fourth, news media is fast.

Fifth, news media is social media.

Sixth, news media is not always driven by good journalism.

If you detect a theme, then you are a smart cookie. Good job.

I just hate the idea that Americans have come to the point where we cannot truly coexist in a meaningful way with conservatives or progressives

I do not believe it’s because conservatives are more conservative or that progressives are more liberal. I do not believe those who want the elimination of people with differing viewpoints exist in great numbers.

But I believe those contrasting sentiments are being further developed, further ingrained, and further informed by how we receive and consume news. What we see and read is entirely different from what we would have and did just a couple of decades ago.

News media is constant. The advent of the Internet and smartphones is what makes our consumption of news media so different from September 11th, 2001. I was in middle school in a rural, south Georgia town. I was in Language Arts class, and teachers were scrambling about from room-to-room trying to understand what happened and what it meant for students.

Perhaps what I remember most about it was that I remembered it at all. I didn’t really remember much about George W. Bush other than how he pronounced “nuclear” and somehow made it rhyme with “tubular.”. I would imagine many children in 8th grade now have smartphones. And Facebook, YouTube, and any news-breaking social media outlet take their interests based on search history, their time spent on sites, their demographics, and their likely interests; input their data into an algorithm built to maintain their (word of the moment, here) constant engagement; and would have every news and visual angle of the attacks for months to come. We’d spend time “researching” whether jet fuel can, or cannot, melt steel beams when we could have spent on homework or just something less heavy like cat videos or Harry Potter fanfiction.

Imagine what that would be like if adults had access to our phones and media outlets then like we do now. Did Bush instigate the attacks with his policies and rhetoric? Was Bush involved to begin a waged war for more oil? How many YouTube channels would be entirely based on the 9/11 attacks and uncovering knowledge mainstream media won’t investigate or, even worse, won’t present to the public?

All of those thoughts, theories, and conspiracies were prevalent at the time. But today, every news story of even minor note begets a chain of videos, posts, and images we can continuously consume all the time as long as we take even a few minutes to look at our phones.

News media is politically polarized. Both Fox News and MSNBC were launched in 1996. Fox News was founded to serve as a conservative news outlet, and MSNBC began to work as a counter to it a decade later. With cable news media outlets providing news with pundits on a politically-established network with a politically-bent audience expecting politically-bent news and views, it’s no wonder that hosts like Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Joy Reid bend so many of our ears for hours every weekday night.

Instead of the nightly news for 30 minutes before Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, we can get home from work and watch the same news stories of the day (or week or month) from 6pm to midnight from entertaining hosts honed and directed to hold our attention based on how we already feel about the world. Even if you just watch the same amount of news as you would in 2000, that news is decidedly biased from these networks and intentionally so.

I remember Headline News before it became HLN. Every fifteen minutes, a news anchor would give the biggest stories. The news was frequent enough to give you breaking news as it happened, but there wasn’t enough time to present more than just facts. There wasn’t time to focus on how the President drinks water or if the Speaker of the House wore a mask to a beauty salon.

Because that mess isn’t news, you see.

Speaking of which…

News media is nitpicky. I do believe there is a place for political commentators and specialists for certain topics where a charismatic host moderates discussion of a topic. But I believe it is harmful to spend time watching pundits bully politicians for matters outside of what we send them to Washington to do. I believe it only serves to demonize the other side (implying there are just two sides in politics) and to make it easier to dehumanize them and their political stances.

I do not believe many of the stories of President Trump or Nancy Pelosi or various other political figures serve to inform us as much as they make it easier for us to loathe others on that side. I can’t imagine Dan Rather of the CBS Evening News even mentioning some of the segment topics found on news networks today.

News media is fast. As I was typing this, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was pronounced dead. Even a couple of decades ago, a Supreme Court Justice passing would truly be breaking news, and networks would cut in before a commercial to break it. But we might not know about the recordings Bob Woodward released with President Trump until the next evening or morning.

We can now know what happens and make “informed” decisions long before needing to donate, campaign, or vote for a candidate. But there is so much information presented so fast, it’s hard for anyone without journalistic aptitude and experience in the digital age to determine what is good information.

News media is social media. Facebook and Twitter are often where people find out about news. And that news may not even come as a link to a news outlet. Three friends sharing a status about the same topic gives you a headline before you even have to click a link. But even more likely, our friends and family likely have a certain political and social leaning. That means our news and initial impression of news is skewed as well. Furthermore, we unfriend, unfollow, and block people often based on political views. Those actions and clicks and shares on social media are documented to further engage us with curated content to keep us scrolling past ads. To provide us with an experience we want to relive when more “news” breaks.

Oftentimes, all news outlets break the same news but with different perspectives and headlines. I imagine my timelines and news feeds are curated to my tastes so that I may always see news a certain way long before I read the articles. I just don’t really have the time or patience to peruse them all to develop a nuanced, educated opinion.

News media is not always good journalism. Even on biased mainstream media news outlets and newspapers, journalists will issue revisions and updates on actual news presented. But due to the speed at which news is reported and consumed, the first impression may be the only impression consumers receive. Even worse, the Internet has no such standards. An articulate, charismatic, political vlogger can present news to their audience that matches the viewers values enough to make them return visitors. That one YouTuber’s 100,000 subscribers contributes to the electorate’s knowledge enough to easily swing a close general election in a state. And it is only now that social media are beginning to hold people accountable for false and dangerous claims.

I’m not so fearful that any one President or administration can make America fail.

But no one ever alive has known what it is like to live with constant access to information on the issues we hold dearest to our values. And that information wasn’t targeted to our individual values and interests based on our search histories, clicks, and Nielsen ratings. That information simply existed to inform the public instead of generating revenue. A lot of incidental harm has come from technological advances, and some of that harm manifests itself in a way that drives us further from fellow Americans.

As it stands, and maybe I was just never aware it was the case, many conservatives simply cannot abide a liberal. Liberals are baby-killing, communistic, and lazy snowflakes who would give up freedom for the sake of comfort. And many progressives cannot abide a regressive. Regressives are misogynistic, money-grubbing, ignorant masses who would give up justice for the sake of comfort.

As an American citizen and with the inclusive language of our Constitution, I feel as if it is a fundamental failing if we are too hateful, either as the offender or offended, to find civility with our neighbor. I do get that people’s lives, freedoms, and safety are supported or denied based on our values, and we vote based on those values. It is hard to love someone who actively contributes to harming others.

But for me at least, I believe I am fortunate to have a job where I must work regularly with people regardless of their political beliefs. These are repeat clients, and personal values do come up in conversation. But despite disagreements I have with them, I can’t help but see the good in those people. They offer sound life advice, jump start my car, are patient beyond the bounds of a professional agreement, and simply genuinely smile and share good humor with me. That interaction is very easily lost online for reasons even outside of the polarized aspects of how we consume news.

In a Women’s Studies class, our professor often had two students with opposing viewpoints debate those opinions at the front of the room facing each other. It was hard to dehumanize someone even with a strong opposing viewpoint when 1) they were directly in front of you, and 2) you had a whole room of people who would rightfully judge you if you were inclined to act the fool. I appreciated her exercise, because it was a lesson to not necessarily back away from what I believed but to respect the person with whom I disagreed.

To conclude, politics wasn’t always something we, the people, participated in every day.

It is complicated and boring and pretentious. Even with a well-trusted field of journalists and outlets, it would be incredibly difficult for the layperson to truly research and understand all the policies and bills and laws and orders and appointments made on Capitol Hill. That’s us. We’re laypeople. We elect people who do this as their job to understand our needs and values to this on our behalf. We simply need to be educated enough to elect the best people for the job and get on with our lives. At least, that is my stance currently. How the President drinks his water is a matter of light entertainment for me. I really do not care.

I don’t think how we consume information and how it is presented will change, but I have faith in the American people enough to not fear any new President. I don’t really trust politicians all that much, but I trust the conservatives and progressives I talk to. I trust that we all want what’s best for America and its people. It just requires being in touch with everyone and really connecting as needed.

Evander Baker is a public health official and Athens resident


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