On Friday, Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities all over the world to protest the man’s ascent to power – comparing him to despotic dictators of yesteryear and lamenting what they fear will be a dramatic reversal of civil rights for women and minorities in America.
Those in Trump’s corner, however, see the businessman as a political outsider with the influence and tactics necessary to elicit real change in a government that has become overgrown and economically nonviable. Many Trump supporters aren’t interested in reversing progressive trends, they’re more concerned with the nation’s economy, national defense, and often, are merely seeking respite from liberal policies that have left rural Americans out in the cold for the better part of a decade.
On the Left, Trump’s campaign slogan, “make America great again,” means a reversal of efforts to place women, minorities and the LGBTQ community on equal footing with the rest of Americans. On the Right, the very same slogan represents a harkening to an era when each tax paying American’s share of the national debt wasn’t creeping up on $167,000 – and when the number of Americans who owned their own homes wasn’t at its lowest point in fifty years.
Americans have one of the most advanced data sharing infrastructures in the world, allowing people of varying viewpoints and priorities to instantly share messages with anyone willing to read, watch, or listen. We have more communication and information disseminating tools at our disposal than any generation of Americans to come before us, yet somehow, we seem to be more polarized than ever. The internet, once lauded as a means by which the world could come together, instead seems to be ripping us apart.
How the hell did that happen?
While there are a dozen papers published a minute regarding social media and political trends and where the two intertwine (2016’s election was certainly good for graduate students scrambling to come up with a thesis paper) the Wall Street Journal recently released a tool that makes the political polarization of America so easy to understand you don’t have to subject yourself to reading academic journals to get it – you need only to look at your Facebook newsfeed.
“Blue Feed, Red Feed” is an amalgam of Facebook content shared by users of the social media platform since 2015 and assembled by the Wall Street Journal. The posts reflected on the page all fall into one political extreme or the other – either very conservative or very liberal – and were collected as a part of a large scale study of Facebook content and trends. Although the presentation resembles two newsfeeds, the truth is a bit more nuanced – as the Wall Street Journal themselves explain, “These aren’t intended to resemble actual individual news feeds. Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.”
The political posts are divided into eight hot-button categories: President Elect Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, abortion, President Obama, guns, ISIS, and Presidential Debate. Simply pick the topic you’d like to use as the means by which you lose faith in humanity, and start scrolling through the side by side comparison of content shared by those of each political extreme. You’ll likely see posts that look familiar to you – I know I did – as the content was not invented to demonstrate the level of our society’s political depravity, it was merely curated.
It doesn’t take long to start to notice the vast differences in the ways stories are reported and addressed by popular websites within each community.
It’s easy to see why each side is flabbergasted by the extremism and foul play demonstrated by the opposing party: seeing these feeds side by side would lead me to believe everyone in America has lost their minds.
Pushing further, I tried a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: guns. I love my guns, a few of them even have names, but even I can appreciate the concerns some people have about gun laws in the United States – none of us want criminals to have access to firearms, and mass shootings, particularly in schools, are too awful to put into words… but how do we start a dialogue regarding gun legislation when this is what each side of the debate reads each morning over coffee?
We’ve discussed the issue of confirmation bias before, and as I’ve pointed out, we’re all susceptible to it. CNN, ever at the forefront of breaking news, seems to have just heard of it though – touting a recent study that suggests people tend to seek out information that supports their pre-existing beliefs as breaking news.
“Our analysis showed that two well-shaped, highly segregated, and mostly non-interacting communities exist around scientific and conspiracy-like topics,” Alessandro Bessi, a postdoctoral researcher, told CNN. “Users show a tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirm their pre-existing beliefs.”
So what can we do to combat the growing divide separating Americans along ideological lines? Well, like confirmation bias itself, the solution isn’t a new development either: it’s just good old fashioned self-awareness and critical thinking.
While the examples I showed are fairly extreme (but certainly not the most extreme) cases of the Left and Right operating in separate intellectual spheres, it’s safe to say that many (dare I even say, most) Americans are reasonable folks, we just have a lot going on in our lives. Decision fatigue sets in at a certain point, where we’re emotionally exhausted by the practical challenges of our lives – a fight with the wife, a flat tire on the way to work – and we log onto Facebook in search of an escape, not another mental chore. Sometimes we may eye a shared post with a bit of cynicism, but often we’ll just click “like” or “share” when we see something we like or want to share.
But no matter how advanced Facebook’s fake news filters become (a responsibility I’m wary of placing on the platform and even more wary of awarding to mainstream news sites as they’ve proposed) there’s always going to be questionable content making its way to us in one way or another. Like it or not, the onus has to be on us to start being the change we’re demanding from Facebook, Google and others.
Telling them to prevent the spread of fake news is literally demanding that they censor our own posts. Facebook hasn’t been sharing Infowars and Occupy Democrats posts, we have been, and when we ask the platform to be the judge, we relinquish our own responsibility for the content we share. It’s like ordering a glass of water at a restaurant, pouring it on our own laps, and then demanding the restaurant do something about all this lap water that’s going around.
So for the sake of the nation, think hard about the content you’re sharing and your intended audience. Are you participating in a conversation or yelling in an echo chamber? Are you trying to make things better, or are you just jumping on the hog pile?
Or would you rather Facebook decided for you?
Image courtesy of Gizmodo