People have been hollering that Social Media is driving a wedge between us and polarizing America politically. It is one of those situations where you sit back and think it sounds and feels logical. We even get “data” that supports what we already think, as a Pew Research Center study cited: “More than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating.” But is this truly the case, or is this a by product of elsewhere from which the polarization is hatched?
The National Bureau of Economic Research just released a data-driven study centered on Social Media and the previous presidential election (2012) that says otherwise. No, Social Media is not the cause of political polarization of America. Vox Media went behind the Bureau’s paywall to dig into the research and found that younger folk, who live on Social Media, were less polarized than the oldest Americans, who are the smallest faction on the interwebs. Vox surmises that perhaps it is cable TV and talk radio, where the older Americans dominate the ratings, where the polarization is engendered. Pew’s own data, in another survey, found that progressively as you go up the age blocks, the oldest Americans are 50 percentage points behind the youngest in Social Media use.
While there is no doubt that people are frustrated by the arguments and drama of political Social Media chatter, there is a great benefit in how Social Media can enlighten Americans… if they choose to put the efforts in.
I primarily draw my news through Twitter. My “follows” of journalists and news sites stretch the political rainbow. It brings me not just the news of the moment, but perspective from both camps where then I can make up my own mind and not fall into the tribal cave of my political desires. Some examples of how such an approach has enriched me:
- Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist retweeted a story about how Target’s decision to renovate stores to accommodate transgender bathrooms has driven away customers. That didn’t jive with me. So a quick Google search and it turns out Fox Business points to six straight quarters of losses (that precedes the transgender issue) and women’s news site, Simplemost, pointed to the expansion of supermarket and pharmacy services as major culprits. The right-leaning Federalist editor cherry picked a story, out of ease or intention, that fit her organization’s narrative.
- On the flip side, the right-leaning Twitter pundits provided smart analysis with the recent gaffe by Sean Spicer with his Hitler analogy. Many on the left immediately jumped on Holocaust denialism, but it was an overreaction. Turn back to the Federalist, who said it was stupid, not denial and then pointed out Spicer would not have been in that position had the president been consistent on his policy of non-intervention in Syria.
- Andrew Sullivan, who writes an entertaining weekly column and, depending upon who you ask, either a moderate Conservative or hawkish Liberal, took to task Hillary Clinton for a tremendously flawed and failed campaign. He has been a long-time Clinton hater, so it’s no surprise he went down this path, yet Twitter-left lit up with misogyny claims. Perhaps, but he scored a solid point when stating:
The most popular question that came from interviewer Nick Kristof’s social-media outreach, for example, was: “Are you doing okay?” Here’s Michelle Goldberg: “I find myself wondering at odd times of the day and night: How is Hillary? Is she going to be all right?” Seriously, can you imagine anyone wondering the same after Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis or John Kerry blew elections?
Right, it’s not sexist at all to ask “are you doing okay?” to a female candidate when that wasn’t asked of male counterparts.
But the bigger story in Sullivan’s weekly piece was veiled racism of blacks while pointing out the similar (but not equal) plight of Asian immigrants in American History who have since raised themselves as demographic to higher standing. At first blush I thought well, that’s an interesting take. But then I noticed there was 3 to 1 outrage on twitter with this content of his article compared to the sexist Clinton shots. I continued to dig through these critics looking for context. First came the recounting of MLK’s refutation of such an argument in 1966, which states that no other minority immigrant group in America went through slavery. Then was a fascinating thread of tweets from Jeff Guo, who writes for the Washington Post, that counters the false narrative Sullivan laid out in as much detail as Twitter can offer (he does it in 27 numbered tweets). The broad theme in his argument against Sullivan is that using one minority group against another served a purpose for the majority group, including what seems like a hastily posted story, with nonetheless compelling links on this sudden minority makeover, on the same day as Sullivan’s that broaches the topic without actually mentioning him.
This is but a one-week analysis of how Social Media as a source of news is significantly more enriching than sitting on one cable news outlet for an evening allowing them to push a narrative towards you. Sure, you may have to work a little to get a complete picture of what is coming across the news wires, but in the long run the context and depth of learning makes one a more informed citizen. Then you can launch into a Facebook argument and drive those people mentioned in the Pew survey at the outset into a tizzy of unliking, unfollowing or unfriending.