The Effects of Social Media on Political Polarization

Aman Manazir

Recently I watched The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary on the rise of social media and its direct impact on the ideological polarization of our country. While it was somewhat dramatic, it did pose some interesting concerns that directly relate to the upcoming Presidential election.

Social Media’s Business Model

One of the key ideas in The Social Dilemma  is the business model that social media companies operate on.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter generate revenue by selling advertising space to other companies. Because you do not pay for social media, you are the product rather than the customer. The advertisers are buying your attention.

This is why they are incentivized to keep you on the platform for as long as possible. The more attention they can hold, the more ads you watch, and the more money they make.

The Nature of Social Media

Social media is different from older technologies like television or movies because of overlap between the users and creators.

On mainstream media, the people creating the content are starkly different than the people consuming it. It often takes big producers and a high budget to create the stories you see on TV. However, on social media, it's the users generating the content.

Production Incentives

Because social media companies don’t create content themselves, they must somehow incentivize the users to do so.

They do this by either providing the creator with some sort of compensation (YouTube) but more commonly through a system of "likes" and "comments."

People like getting a positive reception to what they post. Every detail is fine tuned to make this process as enjoyable as possible in hopes that you do it more often, from the colors of the interface to the animation of the like button.

Recommendation Algorithms

Social media companies have also maximized their algorithms to recommend content to the user that is more likely to keep them on the platform for longer.

There are two areas that the algorithms tend to push, as they are the most effective.

First, people like to see content that validates their pre-existing beliefs. After the algorithm finds out what your opinions are, it starts to recommend convincing content that confirms your ideas.

It will also present you with absurd, radical arguments from the other side. This is because people also enjoy being outraged; they want you to react angrily or write a hateful comment which prompts you further to check the response you are getting.

Political Polarization

Over time, the nature of social media has a great impact on its users.

Because you’re shown evidence that confirms your beliefs while also being presented with the worst representation of the opposite side, you tend to settle into your pre-existing category.

This happens with everyone. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on an issue, social media will slowly help your dig your heels in further and will create strong contempt for the opposition.

Understanding and Connection

This is why it’s so important to seek understanding rather than scorn people who ideologically differ from you.

People tend to think that those who don't agree with them do so purely out of malice or ignorance; however, most people’s beliefs are a product of circumstance and have been accelerated in the opposite direction by social media.

Kindness and compassion is the only way to reach people, not hatred and bigotry.

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