In his inaugural address last month, President Joe Biden called for unity and to “end this uncivil war” that the United States is currently in. While it is a noble call, the truth is that the country remains far too divided on too many issues and the animosity too great on both sides.
Liberals have branded Republicans, especially those who maintain any support for former President Donald Trump, as domestic terrorists; while conservatives have countered that the calls for unity actually mean pledging absolute support for liberal causes. Nowhere is the political divide so great than across social media.
While a recent NYU study found social media platforms may not have actual bias – an issue still debated by many on the right – the fact remains that battle lines certainly exist among the users.
“This is a reflection of the political polarization that we’ve seen in the slanted media on cable TV, especially with FoxNews and MSNBC,” explained Chris Haynes, associate professor of political science and national security at the University of New Haven.
“It is happening there and it filters out into the public, where it is repeated on social media,” warned Haynes. “The political elite send down these messages, and across social media the talking points come out.”
One of the problems is that social media has largely transformed to a broadcast platform for the masses, and a meaningful debate can be easily drowned out.
“Social media has become part of the wedge, it is more personalized and decentralized and it allows those passionate about one side to repeat talking points,” said Haynes. “And they aren’t actually engaging, and then there is push back users just spew talking points and get more upset.”
Lowering the Noise
Perhaps one way to address the issue would be for social media platforms to “lower the noise” when it comes to political discussions.
“Twitter – and to some extent Facebook – have done this already by banning Trump and policing the site to eliminate fraudulent and inflammatory claims on political and social issues,” suggested Lawrence Parnell, associate professor of Strategic Public Relations at The George Washington University.
“For now, they need to maintain their vigilance, remove offensive posts and/or label them as such,” added Parnell. “Their goal should be to keep the focus on content – not the platform – to offset regulatory action sparked by public outcry or political gamesmanship.”
However, this may not be as easy as it sounds, added James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
“The problem with social media companies trying to mediate the ‘uncivil war’ is that they enter the ‘arbiter orbit.’ That will necessarily entail making value judgments about what is and isn’t polite or credible,” Bailey explained.
“Social media companies then become the protectors and champions of public discourse,” Bailey noted. “It’s a no-win situation. No matter how precise and legally defensible their policies regarding postings are, someone will always, always find fault, and maybe rightfully so.”
Back To Social
One way that social media platforms could help is to encourage social media to go to being about social conversations, rather than continuing to be anti-social platforms where there is the “us vs. them” mentality that we now see.
“That train has left the station,” said Parnell.
“No question that political discussion is now part of the fabric of the major sites – Twitter and Facebook in particular,” he added. “People go there to read and respond to it – but they do expect some control of what is posted and how people engage with and respond to it.”
The issue is that social media wasn’t really designed to address this sort of discussion, and the platforms are still ill-suited to this type of debate. However, a question could be asked whether the platforms even have an obligation to trying to lower the noise.
“Social platforms in their current form cannot go back, it was the lack of restrictions – except for character count – and encouragement of free expression, that was why most got on social in the first place,” said Steven Lewis, entertainment industry strategist.
“I would suggest that the whole concept of ‘social’ depends on your interpretation of the term,” added Lewis, who is currently co-writing a study titled InCredible Communication.
“Social doesn’t necessarily mean fun and light, it just implies a connection,” said Lewis. “So as to why some social media has gone down a dark tunnel is not a reflection of the platforms, it’s the medium itself. You can’t put the Genie back in the bottle, but you can water down the politics with micro-sites within these platforms that are clear forums for specific voices related to politics. Either the platforms themselves will take this approach or new ones will spring up to cover the spectrum of connection. Otherwise within the worlds of twitter, Instagram and Facebook, this has proven to be a losing game of ‘whack-a-mole’ to stop the unbridled hate.”
Better For The Platforms
Then the most cynical way to look at the problem is that the discourse is probably good for business, at least for now.
“It generates traffic and allows them to sell advertising and monetizes it,” said Hayes. “It is good in the short term, but in the long term it could impact their reputations and brands. That is why Mark Zuckerberg pulled back and why Twitter is following suit. If they don’t do something they will have fingers pointed at them for helping create this divide.”
So what is the answer?
“Facebook, Twitter etc. should take advantage of the ‘air cover’ focus on Redditt, and others involved in the Game Stop short selling fiasco, has created to clean up and formalize their ongoing content review efforts,” suggested Parnell.
“I don’t agree that companies need to stop speaking about politics. To try to go back to a time when seemingly business was separate from the political is to go back to time that did not exist. They have always been intertwined,” added Tarshia Stanley, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences at St. Catherine University.
“The difference is that the consumer recognizes the connection in a way they had been discouraged from seeing before. The average person can make comments about, and to, a business and its political perspective in spaces that could very well alter a bottom line,” added Stanley. “We are definitely in an uncivil war of words, but this is the fruit of the problem – not the root. The penchant for hyperbole and cancel culture makes people think they have the power of being right rather than doing the work of real dialogue. It’s easier to throw verbal jabs and judge the likes and retweets. Perhaps businesses should model real dialogue.”
Another lingering problem is that social media has no review process, and while we have seen that the platforms have cracked down on former President Trump, a lot of misinformation continues to spread.
“Social media sites aren’t newspapers, who generate their own content,” suggested Bailey. “Social media by definition borrows other’s content with the promise that it can be widely shared. Can that content be fairly arbitrated? Absolutely not. Must something be done? Absolutely. What should be done? Absolutely no idea. Social media created this mess. They fomented it for two decades. It’s their Gollum. Good luck.”