Last updated on October 20, 2022
As midterm elections approach in the American political system, politicians turn towards social media platforms that have become essential to the success of any 21st-century campaign. Social media campaigns are accompanied by the digitally voiced sentiments of younger generations of Americans, many of which rely on the information accessible to them on these media platforms to make informed voting decisions. The role of social media in American politics has been both glorified and vilified. However, in the past decade, its once democratizing influence has become a leading cause of political polarization.
President Barack Obama was an early adopter of the power of the internet in the 2008 presidential election. His campaign strategy leveraged the networking and data analytic capabilities of social media to build community and target personalized appeals to voters across the nation with the empowering slogan “Yes We Can”. Obama’s campaign took on “the characteristics of a social movement with strong digital grassroots mobilization” (Bimber). Social media in the Obama era was quickly recognized for its contributions to the democratization of elections from individual small contribution funding to increased political participation.
Throughout the past decade, social media has gradually taken on a central role in the American political system. The Trump Presidency exemplifies “the emergence of the political ‘Twitterverse,’ which has become a locus of communication between politicians, citizens, and the press, has coarsened political discourse, fostered ‘rule by tweet,’ and advanced the spread of misinformation” (BBVA). Donald Trump’s presidency leveraged the polarizing capabilities of social media to gain support through provoking outrage amongst his constituents. So much so that the schismatic “Stop the Steal” movement was born from his loss in the 2020 presidential election. What once used to be seen as a force for democracy has now turned into a force for polarization.
How did we go from “Yes We Can” to “Stop the Steal”?
The answer lies in the systemic monetization of the internet. Social media platforms rely on an algorithmic economic strategy based on user engagement. In order to maximize profit, users are grouped into generalized categories to be fed tailored posts that have the highest probability of engagement. One of the main causes for division in the current political climate is the algorithmically determined grouping that sorts users into belief based echo chambers. The problem with mass grouping in the context of American politics, however, is that it results in the categorization of users into two extremes: liberals and conservatives, removing the option for holding a more nuanced political worldview tied to one’s personal beliefs which are often not a monolithic partisan platform. Consequently, polarization is fueled by cognitive biases in information seeking.
Additionally, social media platforms are economically incentivized to promote posts that receive the most engagement which tend to be the most extreme and divisive because of the outrage they provoke. In addition to the grouping that takes place as a result of partisan selection and platform design, social media has also been found to facilitate “the transmission of extreme information across the political spectrum,” as described by John Pasek, a professor of media and communications at the University of Michigan. The result is an online political discourse largely composed of negative hostile polarization and an inaccurate stereotyping of the opposing political side with extreme impressions based upon algorithmically selected media exposure. Furthermore, political candiates are incentivized to make statements based on emotionally compelling arguments rather than merit-based rationales, often at the cost of the effective policy making.
Today’s America is plagued by a highly divisive and mean-spirited political climate. Social media, a platform that once empowered citizens and equalized elections, now has destroyed the democratizing element of the internet leveraged by The Obama Era and turned it into something unrecognizable– a political system controlled by commercial interests which ‘fuels political polarization, rewards extremism, encourages a culture of outrage and generally contributes to the degradation of civic discourse about politics’ (The Yale Law Journal).