Alternative Politics: The Polarization Effect

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Written by Timothy J. Tetreault on April 7, 2017 – Mount Royal University

Introduction

Cable television and broadcast radio have long been powerful outlets for communicating political ideas. But in the Facebook era, has it gone too far? Media has been used by leaders in the past to promote communist ideologies, fascist ones and everything in between. Media has a way of controlling and convincing people. News outlets are able to alter and manipulate facts in order to better fit their agenda. It is as simple as taking speeches out of context and placing pieces together in order to convince audiences of an untruthful coverage of events. (Reese, 1996)

One way of accomplishing this is by editing a speech and subjecting the audience to what the media wants them to hear. You can have the exact same speech covered by two different outlets and one will make the politician out to be a saviour while the other will make him out to be satan himself. The recent United States election brought these issues to the forefront and highlighted the worst in both Democrats and Republicans. President Donald Trump reiterated, time and time again that the divisions in society were caused in large part by the ‘fake news’ outlets that inaccurately covered his campaign. (Carson, 2017).

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Conflict’s Impact on Media

Perhaps the very reason that Donald Trump’s victory was a surprise for so many people was largely in part that his campaign was inaccurately covered by outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and even at times, Fox News. 

Trump was able to collect just under $5 Billion in free campaign coverage (Miere, 2016) because the news stations care less about the political situation and more about their bottom lines. When conflict occurs, revenues and viewership soares. The 2016 Election campaign – to the media – was a blessing. And Donald Trump rode their coverage to the White House. 

The media is able to encourage polarization through those already further from the political center (Levendusky, n.d.). These people become passionate in their views and hatred toward opposing ideas is fostered and conflicts occur.

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The fact is that the mainstream media, right and left, could not get enough of the Republican nominee. Every controversial thing he said, regardless of how ridiculous it was got covered by the media. Primetime viewership for many of the major cable news networks was increased by up to 50% compared with previous years. In addition to this, the middle age demographic has increased 55% during the election campaign. (Berg, 2016, para. 4) The 2016 revenues for the mainstream outlets has increased an average of 15% when compared to the year before. (Berg, 2016, para. 5). The inadequacies of the candidates were played up by the mainstream media in order to create drama and ensure that there was always a story to cover. The tech generation cared more about the personal details of the candidates than about the actual policy proposed. Trending stories were often lacking in rational substance, and shared for emotional reasons. (Carr, 2015)

When Trump attacks the media, they still have no choice but to cover him. Otherwise the media would lose their ratings, viewership, and ultimately profit margins. A BBC interview with Allen Montgomery – administrator of the National Report – stated that they “have made $10,000” on certain stories. He admitted to altering content when “thousands of dollars are made per story.” (Trending, 2016)

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Social Media’s Impact

In addition to the mainstream media’s untruthful and often incomplete coverage of important events, social media has had a significant impact in the roles of politicians. There is no doubt that social media has the capability for candidates to reach their target demographics cheaply and effectively. President Obama was the first American president to use social media to help his campaign, and his “Ask me Anything” thread quickly became the most popular thread on Reddit (Green, 2015). This is largely because Obama was able to engage his primary target demographic: millennials. Millennials account for a sizable portion of the total voter base, and therefore are important targets. Social media is the easiest way to engage them. In a 2012 study completed by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media and Public Policy, they found that Facebook has a significant impact on the voting patterns of millennials. To be precise, Facebook had an impact of 340,000 votes among undecided millennial voters. (Wihbey, 2016) Of the millennial vote, over one third reported reading an article on social media that would influence their vote according to Ipsos Mori, a European market research firm (A third, 2017).

Social media has its detriments, though, as it allows anybody to like, share and engage users in content development which can lead to fringe news sources such as Breitbart, Infowars and Occupy Democrats that are able to easily share biased, untruthful content to any specific demographic of users (Tan, 2017). The issue is that among the younger generations: Millennials, Generation Z and to an extent, Generation X, the most common source of news is Facebook, Twitter or Google. These generations rely less on traditional sources, and more on digital ones. This allows untruthful news easily to be spread and shared to a large number of people (Marchi, 2012).

Human beings are instinctively vulnerable to routine. There is a comfort in knowing that nothing can contest or contradict an ideology. There is a complex set of socio-cultural,  intellectual and economic biases that can interfere with the ability to accept opposing ideas. People instinctively trust friends and are more likely to follow links shared online by their circles (Menczer, 2016). This quality about humans means that echo chambers are able to form and polarization occurs between right and left sides of the spectrum. Views become black and white as opposed to shades of grey. (Overly, 2016)

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In 1969, Paul Baran – an awarded internet pioneer – predicted in his paper On the Impact of New Communications Media Upon Social Values that as more specialized channels exist in a medium, the more users are able to isolate themselves and believe their own truths. He predicted that the truth is skewed into different groups, each with a differing idea of the truth. Baran writes that acceptance of differing opinions is fundamentally what democracy is built upon, and there is a serious threat presented in these alternate truths (Novak, 2013).

Conclusion

The media is powerful tool, that if utilized effectively by politicans, strong and rallying messages can be communicated easily. It is essential to the election campaigns of leaders, but without moderation can overstep boundaries. The digital mainstream media has done just this and profits often trump truthfulness. The media is a modern neccessity, but in the post-truth era, it is often the number of likes or shares that can re-enforce validity. Stories are shared based on emotional connections as opposed to rationality and this opens the door for fringe sites and echochambers to rise up where views are not challenged. Isn’t failure to challenge ideas the fundamental principle of dictatorships?

Isn’t failure to challenge ideas the fundamental principle of dictatorships?

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Bibliography

A third of young people think social media will influence their vote. (2017, April 04). Retrieved April 04, 2017, from https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3539/A-third-of-young-people-think-social-media-will-influence-their-vote.aspx#gallery[m]/1/

Berg, M. (2016, November 11). Donald Trump May Hate The Media, But They Are Both Winners This Election. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2016/11/10/donald-trump-may-hate-the-media-but-they-won-with-him/#4a70c94845c7

Carr, N., Rondón, A. M., Lund, A., & Heffernan, V. (2015). How Social Media Is Ruining Politics. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/2016-election-social-media-ruining-politics-213104


Carson, J. (2017, February 08). What is fake news? Its origins and how it grew in 2016. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/fake-news-origins-grew-2016/

Green, R. K. (2015, November 16). The Game Changer: Social Media and the 2016 Presidential Election. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-kay-green/the-game-changer-social-m_b_8568432.htm

Levendusky, M. S. (n.d.). Why Do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers? Retrieved April 4, 2017, from http://sites.sas.upenn.edu/mleven/files/polarization_ajps.pdf

Marchi, R., PhD. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity”. Retrieved April 5, 2017, from https://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/MEDIA279/Social%20Media/With%20Facebook,%20Blogs,%20and%20Fake%20News,%20Teens%20Reject%20Journalistic%20%E2%80%9CObjectivity%E2%80%9D.pdf

Menczer, F. (2016, November 28). Fake Online News Spreads Through Social Echo Chambers. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fake-online-news-spreads-through-social-echo-chambers/

Miere, J. L. (2016, November 09). Did The Media Help Donald Trump Win? $5 Billion In Free Advertising Given To President-Elect. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.ibtimes.com/did-media-help-donald-trump-win-5-billion-free-advertising-given-president-elect-2444115

Novak, M. (2013, April 05). TV Will Tear Us Apart: The Future of Political Polarization in American Media. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tv-will-tear-us-apart-the-future-of-political-polarization-in-american-media-16010171/

Overly, S. (2016, November 07). Your political posts on social media are actually changing minds – sometimes. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/11/07/your-political-posts-on-social-media-are-actually-changing-minds-sometimes-2/

Reese, S. D., & Shoemaker, P. J. (1996). Mediating the Message. Retrieved April 5, 2017, from https://journalism.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/sites/journalism.utexas.edu/files/attachments/reese/mediating-the-message.pdf

Tan, E. E., & Ang, B. (2017, February 9). Clickbait: Fake News and the Role of the State. Retrieved April 5, 2017, from https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CO17026.pdf

Trending, B. (2016, November 06). The rise and rise of fake news. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-37846860

Wihbey, J. (2016, October 27). Facebook experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/digital-democracy/facebook-61-million-person-experiment-social-influence-political-mobilization

Canada: First Past the Post – A Case for Status Quo

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Written by Timothy J. Tetreault on September 15, 2019 (Mount Royal University)


Introduction

Is Canada’s political system in need of change? Every election cycle, the losing party complains about the current ‘first past the post’ system. They complain that the election was lost because of election bias, where the winning party is over-represented in the House of Commons, and the losing party is often under-represented. The current system allows for majority governments to be formed, even with a lower than opposition popular vote count. Supporters of this electoral system would argue that it gives power to people whose vote would otherwise not count. (Brodie, 2017)

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The current Canadian system is a single member plurality (SMP), one which is designed to manufacture majority governments. Majority governments are more effective at passing legislation because the focus is primarily on majority groups, and legislation is able to quickly and efficiently be passed. The system is designed to be a winner-take-all approach to the individual constituencies across the country. (Norris, 1997, pp. 3 para. 1)

The seats in the House of Commons are awarded to the winner of each of the 338 constituencies. This assures that each region of Canada has input into the decisions made in Ottawa. For example, a riding in Nunavut will have as much influence in the House of Commons as one from Vancouver. 

Proportional Representation Advocates

Opponents to the current SMP system argue that manufactured majority governments are undemocratic and the elected representatives may not properly reflect the values held by the majority. Their theory is that proportional representation (PR) is a more democratic option. Proportional representation is a system in which seats are divided according to the percentage of overall party votes. This would mean that majority governments would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible in Canada because a 50% vote is required for a majority under this system. Supporters of PR would argue that manufactured majority governments prevent democracy because they overcompensate the winner and undercompensate the losing parties. For example, in the 2015 Canadian federal election the Liberals won a majority (54%) with only 39.5% of the vote. The Green Party received 3.5% of the vote, but only received 0.3% of the seats. (CBC, 2015; Nicula, 2014)

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Improved Representation From SMP

Canada does not need to change electoral systems and doing so will result in alienation of minority groups and provinces with lower populations. The current system allows the rural, isolated people of Canada to have more of an impact on the political decisions of the country. A revised system based on population or majority will hand the power entirely to those who live in the cities. This is due simply to the population of the cities compared to the rural areas. If the pluralist electoral system is abandoned, then the northern territories as well as possibly PEI could lost political power and influence in Ottawa (Monroe, 2002).

Benefits of Majority Governments

In addition, the election bias could be a positive thing for the political process in that it makes relatively frequent majority parties. Majority parties are more easily able to pass legislation and bills do get passed more quickly. Simply put, majority governments tend to be efficient since legislation proposed is nearly always passed regardless of opposition from other parties. Party discipline ensures that elected representatives remain loyal to their caucus leader and the their voters. As a result — unlike the US — elected representatives remain loyal to their leader and vote in favour of legislation proposed by their party (Chodos, 2006).

Minority government parties are constantly under threat from opposition. The leading party is often cautious in proposing legislation because the opposition parties can strike down a bill if they collaborate. Under the constant threat of a non-confidence vote, the leading party may have difficulty providing good leadership since their concern includes their public image. Policy is often abandoned in favour of ensuring the party survives its term in office.

“Policy is often abandoned in favour of ensuring the party survives its term in office.”

Accountability of the leading minority party is lost due to the unstable foundation upon which they are built. Minority parties are cautious introducing revolutionary or controversial bills independently. Omnibus bills are commonly used instead. These bundle policies together and include the desired bill along with other clauses that opposition parties support. Since it is an all-or-nothing vote, the leading party is able to still pass their legislation (Massicotte, 2017). Majority governments would not need to ‘hide’ legislation in an omnibus bill in order to get it passed and as a result, government transparency and accountability can be better achieved. 

Governance Through Coalitions

Majority governments also prevent coalitions from forming. Coalitions tend to reduce transparency in government in addition to the potential dangers of alliances and factions. The coalitions can lead to lies, deceit, mistrust and a general shadiness of the political parties. Leaders of these parties align themselves to the ideas of the other parties and occasionally go against their own policies. Coalitions will support a bill one time, and oppose a similar one the next. When parties work together in government, often it is for political interests, as opposed to public interests. In minority governments, parties need to win support of another party to pass any bill. This often means compromising and negotiating which could change the bill to not align to the party’s platform. 

“Coalitions can lead to lies, deceit, mistrust, and a general shadiness of the political parties”

For this reason, minority governments could also be less democratic than majority governments. With majority governments, bills can be more freely passed and backstabbing of other parties is less frequent. Minority governments are also commonly much more unstable than majority ones because in order to be successful, they depend on support of other parties.

An example of how coalition governments could be unstable and potentially dangerous is the 2016 Israeli government coalition which saw the parties: Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu and the Jewish Home unite to obtain 61 of the 120 seats in Knesset (Assembly). This coalition deal was secured by the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and is described by the Guardian as the “most rightwing nationalist government in the country’s history” (Beaumont, 2016).

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The coalition saw five of the largest conservative parties come together and dominate the government. Many of the ministers in the new government have been replaced by ultra-nationalist and controversial leaders such as Avigdor Lieberman (Chief of Staff under Coalition)(Beaumont, 2016) This lays the foundation for the most recent coalition crisis in which the prime minister declared the Israel Broadcasting Authority be shut down. Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister and leader of one of the other major coalition parties believed that the authority be allowed to operate as planned. This disagreement led to speculation that the coalition could fall apart (Hoffman, 2017; Jazeera, 2017). These coalitions can grind the government to a halt and lack the foundation found in majority governments.

Conclusion

Manufactured majority governments are a positive thing because they ensure efficiency, transparency and strength in government.

The SMP system serves Canada well, despite the controversy that surrounds the overcompensation of the winner and penalization of the losing party. Rural areas and those of lower populations have more influence in Ottawa under the current system, and a proportional representation system will hand political influence to cities and urban centers.

Canada simply does not need to change its electoral system.

Bibliography

Beaumont, P. (2016, May 25). Israel coalition deal brings in its most hard-right government ever. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/25/israel-coalition-deal-hard-right-government-avigdor-lieberman

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Hoffman, G. (2017). Deal ends coalition crisis over public broadcasting. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Political-crisis-that-threatened-Israeli-coalition-resolved-485646

Jazeera, A. (2017, March 19). Israeli coalition crisis raises threat of snap polls. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/israeli-coalition-crisis-raises-threat-elections-170319193406754.html

Massicotte, L. (2017). Canadian Parliamentary Review – Article. Retrieved April 07, 2017, from http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=214&art=1517

Monroe, Burt L., and Amanda G. Rose. “Electoral Systems and Unimagined Consequences: Partisan Effects of Districted Proportional Representation.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 46, no. 1, 2002, pp. 67–89., www.jstor.org/stable/3088415.

Nicula, M. D. (2014, January 23). The ‘First Past the Post’ Elections System Doesn’t Work for Canada. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/michael-d-nicula/proportional-representation_b_4120269.html

Norris, P. (1997). Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems (J. Laponce & B. Saint-Jacques, Eds.). Retrieved April 5, 2017, from https://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Choosing%20Electoral%20Systems.pdf