The 2020 US Presidential Elections has unmasked a worsening polarized situation – “a heightened time of partisanship” with differences in opinions that cross the line of hatred and contempt. Worse, social media is amplifying the situation into a direction of a divided America. 

News outlets, even Fox News with its chronicled “symbiotic relationship” with Donald Trump as described by The Guardian’s Washington David Smith, have already called in Biden’s win who has currently 302 electoral votes and a record of 80,063,589 votes despite Trump still contesting the results in five states. 

President-Elect Joe Biden won by a close 7 million votes (so far without room for a flipped decision) in a record breaking voter turnout of 161 million Americans according to Bloomberg. While the former Vice-President and Delaware Senator has garnered “more votes than any presidential candidate in American history”, the hanging question remains: Did America vote for Biden or did it vote to keep Trump out of the White House?

Nevertheless, either answer will still point out to the fact that America is divided and any political compromise at this point will remain out of reach. 

How did America get here? The Role of Social Media in Politics

A decade ago, internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” narrowly defining it as a state of intellectual isolation when the algorithm skews the variety of information we get online based on location, past-click behaviors, and search history. 

This has become a major power player in the political arena wherein people are getting a restricted diet of news. But while it’s undeniably a part of the problem, their causes, consequences, and solutions seem less clear than they used to be, according to Rani Molla of Recode. She also added that “part of the issue is it’s often difficult to understand which comes first: a polarized situation or the social media that aggravates the situation.” 

According to a new research published in the Science magazine, we are more prone to actively hate the opposing side and consider them as “different”, “dislikable”, and “immoral” which results in “political sectarianism.” This is defined in which one’s party identity seems to come first, before policy, religion, or common ground. That is, political identity shapes one’s views instead of the other way around. 

Eli Finkel, one of the authors of the research told Recode, “There’s little doubt in my mind that the way our media ecosystem works is enflaming political sectarianism.” Finkel also added, “Social media is not focused on making the world a better place; it’s primarily focused on engagement, so it listens to us and gives us what we want.”

For example, Facebook’s algorithm puts more emphasis on engagements rather on news which means posts with strong, emotional language tend to have more engagement. Molla also noted the continual promotion of facebook groups since 2016 which “function as their own echo chambers, even without algorithmic help.” 

Aside from that, Facebook also limits who individuals talk to with its very structure having to “friend” people to see their posts which can restrict what we see to more similar lives and viewpoints as you. Its algorithm has also been tweaked since 2016, promoting posts from friends and family and less from news outlets which Molla concluded to further contribute to filter bubbles and division. 

YouTube which was recently awashed in election misinformation with videos questioning election results raking in hundreds of thousands of views, has also been shown to radicalize people through inflammatory messaging. 

But according to a research in the Wall Street Journal, people on social media do see opposing viewpoints. The problem is that since platforms like Facebook focus more on engagements, people see the “most acerbic of opposing views” leading them to be more repelled by these perspectives resulting in “even more entrenched viewpoints and more polarization.”

Driving Factors: Distrust, Politically Divergent Interpretations, and Tense Societal Factors

Though most Americans are getting their news from social media according to Pew with a 10 percent growth from last year’s 28 percent, what they see are not current events news but more likely to be conspiracy theories. 

And despite getting so much news from social media, there is a large distrust about social media platforms as stated by Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of journalism research at Pew. 

There is also distrust of facts and journalism organizations which are necessary to protect democracy. In a series of Pew Research Center polls, the data show that Republicans rely on and trust fewer sites for politics with Fox News being on the forefront of their reliable sources. Fox News has been dubbed as Trump’s mouthpiece and a fount of disinformation. 

Andy Guess, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, took a look at web traffic – a science based data – and discovered that there is overlapping media consumption except among a smaller set of extremists. This suggests a more difficult problem. People are looking at the same set of information but drawing different and even divergent conclusions. 

Other researchers also believe that severe inequality such as waf stagnation, national debt, distrust of government also contribute to political violence. The “political stress indicator” currently shows “American political instability to be in line with the lead up to the Civil War.”

What should be the next steps?

In an interview with Recode, Pariser described how differences are magnified online. He said, “The inputs are also the outputs. Where I live and who my friends are and what media I consume all shape what I see, which then shapes decisions I make about what media I consume and where to live and who to be friends with.” 

That is, the answer to this polarization is not easy and requires huge structural changes in the society which mainly include addressing all the driving factors and more importantly, having a “serious, truthful, and mediated discussion between people of opposing viewpoints.”

Pariser also said, “It’s not just a matter of coming into contact with the other side. It’s doing so in a way that leads us to greater understanding.” 

To do that, social media platforms which drive most of these conversations also need to be accountable. Steven Johnson, co-author of the research alongside Eli Finkel, said, “These platforms at this point are huge, they’re mature, they have all sorts of resources, all sorts of ability to figure out ahead of time – and certainly monitor afterwards – what kind of impacts all of their algorithmic tweaks are having on users’ information consumption.”