Raising the Standard at UGA since 2013.

Discourse in the Age of Social Media

The portal to the echo chamber begins here.

Exponential growth in internet access has granted a large proportion of Earth’s population access to seemingly unlimited information. Social media allows individuals to connect and communicate from opposite sides of the world. As with most entities, however, there is potential for abuse.

The creation of social media was intended to connect individuals who may not meet in day-to-day interaction through an online social platform. The platform would allow these users to input biographical information and to communicate about their interests and lifestyle. Social media is unique in its use of personalized algorithms, which connect users to preferable content or connections. Personalized content makes the platform more attractive for its users by saturating their news feed with relevant, interesting information.

Facebook and Twitter are the most well-known and most popular social media platforms. These platforms strategically place photos, personal posts, news stories and ads in front of you. The Economist states that “Because they can measure how you react, they know just how to get under your skin. They collect data about you in order to have algorithms to determine what will catch your eye, in an ‘attention economy’ that keeps users scrolling, clicking and sharing.” Twitter, in particular, is often discussed because of the President’s personal account. In a similar way, other major news sources and public figures use social media accounts to disseminate important information. Every major news source and nearly every celebrity run active social media accounts as a means both of communicating with their followers and of expressing themselves.

Social media is unique in its ability to amplify fringe opinions and easily distort information. Billions of accounts have access to seemingly unlimited information, which can blur the distinction between credible and dishonest information. Determining which information is credible or unreliable is a tough task for social media engineers and it naturally brings to mind the dilemma of censorship. Activists across the political spectrum have accused both Facebook and Twitter of censorship and the debate has further prompted Congressional investigation.

Individuals view their social media accounts as an online extension of their identity. Billions of individual social media accounts combined with personalized algorithms is problematic in some regards. Isolating individuals with comforting content can lead to the “echo chamber effect.” Sources in The Washington Post state that, “social scientists Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein found quantitative evidence of how users tend to promote their favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs.” Additionally, Christine Emba says, “Users tended to seek out information that strengthened their preferred narratives and to reject information that undermined it. Alarmingly, when deliberately false information was introduced into these echo chambers, it was absorbed and viewed as credible as long as it conformed with the primary narrative. And even when more truthful information was introduced to correct or ‘debunk’ falsehoods, either it was ignored or it reinforced the users’ false beliefs.”

There are two major steps to reduce the effectiveness of echo chambers. “A first step would be for outlets to resist pandering to established constituencies, despite the temptations of a guaranteed audience and trend-driven traffic…Another step would be for news organizations to spend less time debunking false information, which the newly published study shows is more likely to solidify readers in their beliefs than change minds.” Emba correctly identifies the click-bait nature of social media communication as a major source of our political partisanship. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of social media users to be proactive and extend an open hand to content that is inconsistent with their general interests. Politically speaking, this would help to reduce political partisanship, and it would expose individuals to new and varying viewpoints in order to unite our society’s cultural divisions.

Our political process was formed on the basis that the House of Representatives and the Senate were to cooperate in order to pass legislation. The Executive Branch, or the Office of the President, is to sign or veto these pieces of legislation. The 1st President of the United States, George Washington, was an opponent to a two-party system because he believed they could “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Political parties consist of various coalitions, and they must adjust their platforms to retain voters. In 2017, the two major political parties have become “potent engines” and their binary nature has impeded national progress.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault scandals are being exposed throughout the country, yet Washington DC remains the one place where perpetrators have yet to be held accountable. Political parties’ abilities to pressure individuals into binary thinking and our society’s unwillingness to accept information inconsistent with our views has led to the current situation. Until the American people disavow immoral behavior and forgo binary thinking, our society will not transform. Sexual assault allegations will continue to be politicized and undermined. Our society cannot retain its unity if we are willing to forgo basic morality in order to meet political ends. America is great because America is good. The long-time unifier of the American people was our agreement on basic ethical and moral principles, once we forgo these principles, what unifies us?

Mitchell Nemeth is a Masters of Law candidate and former President of the Young Americans for Liberty at UGA.

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