Media hastening the polarization of political dialogue

Media, social media in particular, is transforming the world. It literally has the power to start revolutions, and did just that throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring of 2011. Never before has information and the exchange of ideas been so accessible for such a wide range of people across the world regardless of nationality, religion or socio-economic status. 

However, there are unintended consequences that result from the ways people interact on social media with regard to what type of information is being shared. Social media appears to be extremely conducive towards the distribution of extreme views, from both ends of the spectrum. The positive and negative repercussions of social media need to be carefully weighed in how we approach using it in the future.

Human beings by nature are interested in what other people think, especially those who hold significantly different viewpoints. The negative result of this is mainstream news sources tend to use their time covering stories from perspectives that are extreme such as the Tea Party or liberal news source Mother Jones. But the reality remains that the vast majority of Americans hold centrist or moderate views across all topics, foreign and domestic. 

Heightening the issue is the conglomeration of major media outlets in the United States since the mid 20th century. In the 1950s and 60s, media on television and radio was largely regional and divided amongst hundreds if not thousands of private companies. According to firstamendmentstudies.org in 2002 the vast majority of television and radio outlets were owned and operated by 10 corporations, or “The Big Ten.” By 2006 that group had been reduced to a “Big Six,” GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS.

Comcast’s merger with NBC under the parent company GE will account for 1 out of every 5 hours on television, according to the Business Insider.

The implications of the media being dominated by so few outlets is simple. The loss in numbers of outlets result in a loss of the diversity of opinions exposed to the American populace. The loss in opinions expressed to the public results in the streamlining of peoples thoughts, reinforced by the mostly slanted views propagated on common news channels such as FOX or HLN.

Expanding the conversation to the social media platform. Algorithms on websites like Facebook and MySpace gather data about each individual user in terms of what topics or articles they like to read. They then spit out articles, videos or memes similar to what the user was previously interested in. The result of this is completely one sided information being fed to the users of social media. One sided information that only serves to harden their opinions in one way or another, deepening the cultural void between the ideological left and right. 

The reality of what mainstream media and social media is doing in terms of ideologically dividing people is truly frightening when applied on a global scale. 

Fanatic or extremist groups find fertile ground for gathering followers on the ever expanding medium of social media. The ability to share violent or hateful video and have it shared and viewed by millions of people around the world is an irresistible temptation to these groups. 

Indeed, platforms on the internet from mediums as seemingly benign as Facebook have contributed toward the radicalization and decision of over 20,000 foreigners to travel to the middle east and fight for the terrorist organization ISIS.

The media, especially social media, is here to stay. There’s no reversing the tidal wave of change that it has ushered in. However, if we are to utilize this tool without letting it spin our world out of control, we need to have serious dialogue about how we as a culture interact with it in the future.

Breaking up major media conglomerates, re-adjusting the algorithms currently in place on social media websites, and educating young people about the inherently biased nature of all media are a few long-term solutions.

Implementing these or other potential solutions is by far the real challenge.