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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