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Impact of Social Media (Facebook and Twitter) on Political Polarization

Introduction

Social media has become the most powerful communication platform in the contemporary world. According to Marozzo and Bessi, Facebook and Twitter are some of the most powerful social media platforms that people across the world use regularly (11). Founded in 2004, Facebook was meant to facilitate simple communication among college students. Currently, it has over 2.41 billion active users and the number is growing rapidly (Metaxas and Mustafaraj 450). The number of global users of this platform makes it the most powerful communication tool in the modern society. Twitter may have a smaller number of active users, estimated to be slightly below half a billion people, but it has become the hotbed of news and debates of politics in the United States (Suhay et al.110).

The younger generation is shifting from mass media platforms to the social media to get information that shape their opinion. It is important to note that Facebook and Twitter have gained popularity among people of varying ages. As such, they have become critical tools for the political class and opinion shapers. While a section of the society believe that these sites have enhanced democracy by making it easy for people to share their political opinions freely, others feel that these sites have been responsible for the rising political tensions in different parts of the world, including in the United States. In this paper, the researcher seeks to determine if social media platforms, specifically Facebook and Twitter, have exacerbated political polarization. The following is the research question that the study seeks to answer:

Is social media targeting on Facebook and twitter exacerbating political polarization?

Methodology Used in This Study

The effect of social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, on political discourses is an area of knowledge that has attracted the attention of many scholars within the last one decade. In this study, it was important to develop an appropriate method of investigating the issue to help determine if these sites have worsened political polarization in the country and in other parts of the world. Data used in this study was collected from both secondary and primary sources. Secondary data sources included recent peer-reviewed journal articles that focus on this topic. Using these articles made it possible to obtain credible information about the role that the social media is playing in political discourses.

Primary data was obtained from two individuals who were interviewed to help shed more light on the issue. The researcher wanted to get the view of industry experts based on their knowledge and experiences on the issue under investigation. It was desirable to interview many people to get varying perception of this issue. However, the limited time meant that it was not possible to interview many people.

As Marozzo and Bessi observes, time is a factor that one has to consider when collecting data from different sources (8). Using judgmental sampling, the researcher identified two local political scientists who have been vocal in local and national politics to help understand the role that Facebook and Twitter have played in political polarization. Information obtained from these sources was analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Findings

When answering the research question in this study, the researcher relied on data collected from two different sources discussed in the section above. An interview was conducted with two individuals who are political analysts, and as such, understand the power of the social media on political discourses in the country. The two individuals have been active opinion shapers in this part of the country and they heavily rely on the social media to reach out to their audience. When asked whether they believe that social media targeting Facebook and Twitter exacerbate political polarization, figure one below shows how they responded.

How social media platforms influence political polarization in the country.
Figure 1. How social media platforms influence political polarization in the country.

As shown in the figure above, it is clear that the two political analysts feel that social media platforms often worsen political polarization in the country. In the five classes that was given, the experts felt that the effect is extreme and may have serious consequences if corrective measures are not taken by relevant authorities. After getting their views regarding the degree of the exacerbation, the researcher requested the participants to explain why they feel that the two social media platforms have such profound effect on political polarization in the country.

Respondent 2 explained, “These social media platforms are used by a wide number of people but it is difficult to regulate the content of what individuals post. As such, extremists may post messages that may be hurtful to people who belong to different political affiliation.”

The argument above is supported by the findings made by Baum and Groeling when investigating the influence of Facebook on political discourses (450). The scholar note that social media platforms have become incredibly powerful means of sharing information to the masses. The problem is that it is not regulated. In the past when the society relied on mass media to pass critical information to the population, it was easy to regulate the information shared.

Radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazine editors were expected to adhere to specific code of conduct (Ridout et al. 22). They were legally required to avoid publishing information that may cause or worsen political tension in the country. However, such regulations are no longer effective when one is using the social media platforms. People can post what they want at any time without the fear of any significant consequences.

Respondent 1 noted, “The social media platforms have become hotbeds for rumors. Someone can easily share a misleading but politically powerful message that may cause tension within the country.”

Various authors whose works were reviewed in this paper shared the sentiment of this respondent. According to Metaxas and Mustafaraj, one of the issues that often cause political tension is sharing of misleading information (472). When such a message is sensitize to the public, people who feel offended by the message will likely respond negatively and sometimes attack the different camp because of the belief that they authored the message.

It may take long for the affected camp to realize that they have been misquoted or blamed for a mistake that they never committed. By that time, it may be possible that the other camp will have used abusive language, making it difficult to contain the situation. The attacks and counterattacks in the social media platforms can cause massive tension within the society (Bail et al. 9220). Reconciling two parties actively attacking each other in the social media platforms may not be easy.

Respondent 1 also stated, “Lack proper legal and policing framework is another issue that makes it difficult to fight social media polarization in the society.”

According to Howard and Parks, social media has grown at an unprecedented rate, and it is evident that the government had not anticipated the power that it would wield in influencing public opinion (360). Beaufort explains that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, has been summoned by legislators and other top government officials in the United States and the United Kingdom to help them understand privacy policies and the way the company can fight sharing of polarizing messages (919).

It is a clear demonstration that the government is yet to understand how to enact effective policies that can help fight polarization through the social media. Prior explains that in the United States, some legal frameworks have been developed over the past few years to make people individually responsible for everything that they post on their social media pages (120).

When an individual posts a highly polarizing message that has the potential of causing tension in the society, law enforcement agencies are expected to track down such a person so that they can be prosecuted. However, proving that they indeed posted such a message may be a big challenge. Wong reports that one of the issues that have emerged among users of these social media platforms is cybercrime (3).

It is possible for a cybercriminal to hack into a Facebook account of a person of interest and post messages of discord because of personal or political reasons. When an individual makes the claim that their account was compromised and that the message was posted by cybercriminals, it may not be easy to subject them to any form of punishment. The problem with this scenario is that people can often find an excuse about their account being hacked to polarize the society without being subjected to any form of punishment.

Discussion

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in 2004, his primary intention was to create a platform that could connect Harvard University students to enable them share information relating to personal issue (Shane and Frenkel 2). The website gained massive popularity among students in the United States and soon it became a communication tool used by many youths in the country. Mark and his team saw a potential in this project and made several improvement that involved introducing numerous features to facilitate effective sharing of information. It soon became a global phenomenon as many people considered it a platform where they can interact easily with friends and family irrespective of their location.

Twitter took a near similar growth pattern to become the current online communication tool popular among the political class and business executives (Nelimarkka et al. 12). During their initial years, many people, including their founders, did not anticipate that they would become critical instruments in shaping political discourses around the world. However, it is clear that political discourses are becoming primarily based on the social media platforms.

The Arab Spring that started in 2011 is an effective demonstration of the power of Facebook and the role it plays in political polarization. According to Turcotte, there have been civil disobedience and protests in many Arab countries for years, but the regional governments were able to neutralize them using government forces (530). State agencies controlled the media, making it impossible for protestors to coordinate their activities.

The Arab Spring was different because people no longer relied on the mass media. Facebook and Twitter offered a perfect platform of communication away from government control. In Tunisia, Terek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who was frustrated with economic challenges and punitive government policies, set himself ablaze on January 4, 2011 and the event was recorded on the Facebook (Nguyen and Tien 16). The event catalyzed an already boiling political polarization as people realized that they had to take control of their political leadership. It took less than a month for President Zine El Abidene Ben Ali, who had been in power for over 23 years, to step down from power.

The events in Tunisia had a massive influence on the activities of revolutionaries in the region. One month after the Tunisian government was toppled Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power after heading Egypt as its president for almost 30 years. A few months later in the same year, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was killed, bringing to an end his 42-year rule (Boxell et al. 10614). The wave spread to the Middle Eastern countries of Syria and Yemen.

As Ridout et al. observe Facebook played a central role in these protests. It made it possible for citizens to coordinate their activities, share about progress made, and seek the support of the international community (21). Unlike in the past when these governments could determine what is aired by local and international media houses, the social media made it possible for people to share raw images and videos of the pain and suffering that they had to go through in the hands of brutal police and military officers. As such, these leaders were aware that the global community was observing their actions.

It is true that the Arab Spring brought about democracy in some of these countries after the dictators were forced into power. However, Owen argues that these countries have remained politically polarized, unstable, and in worse economic conditions than they were before the uprising (9). Libya had the highest living standards in Africa and its citizens could have free access to education, medical services, and clean water. However, the current armed conflicts in most of the major cities have eliminated these benefits. Different centers of power have emerged in the country, which has made Libya unmanageable (Suhay et al. 104).

Different political affiliations are using Twitter to justify their crimes against humanity. Facebook has become a platform that young Libyans are using to attack those who they perceive to belong to other political affiliation. Instead of promoting tolerance and unity in the country, these platforms are currently used to vent out divisive and polarizing messages in this society. Each political faction is using these platforms to mobilize their troops and to convince other members of the society to join them in fighting other groups.

The same trend has been witnessed in other Arab countries, especially those that were affected by the Arab Spring. In Syria for example, the rebels in Aleppo and Damascus fighting government forces have been posting gruesome images of dead and dying men, women, and children following poisonous gas attacks launched by government forces (Howard and Parks 361). Such images elicit anger and the desire to retaliate among those who sympathize with the rebels.

On the other hand, government forces also use the same social media platforms to share with the international community and their sympathizers how the rebels have been targeting and killing civilians believed to be loyal to the government. Instead of helping the country to achieve peace and tranquility, these platforms have become avenues where these parties justify their attacks against each other. Such messages only strengthen their resolve to continue fighting, which explains why the Syrian war has claimed lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, rebels, and government officers.

According to Beaufort, the use of social media is also becoming an issue in the United States as some elected political leaders now use it to attack their real and perceived opponents (918). According to Marozzo and Bessi, President Donald Trump has been active on Twitter, posting messages some of which are seen as combative and sowing seeds of discord (10). The president once used the platform to attack London Mayor, Sadiq Khan who had questioned the inaction of the United States during Hurricane Dorian. The President actually referred to him as a national disgrace. Owen explains that there is a way in which top political leaders are expected to address perceived differences (3).

Using the social media to launch such scathing attacks against a political leader of a foreign nation may only strain the relationship between the two countries. Such social media attacks by President Trump did not start when he assumed power.

During the 2016 United States presidential election, Trump would use his Twitter handle to attack his main opponent, Hillary Clinton. He would promise his supporters that when he is elected the president, he would ensure that Miss Clinton is jailed. Using abusive words during heated political campaigns only polarize the nation instead of uniting it. It makes difficult for the political leaders to work together before and after election to strengthen the economy and improve cohesiveness (Suhay et al. 110).

During the campaigns, it was common to find cases where Trump supporters would attack those perceived to have a different opinion in their rallies. The supporters would translate the intolerance exhibited in the words of the leader through the social media into attacks. It explains why the country has remained polarized throughout the first term of the presidency of Donald Trump.

The study shows that social media platforms are the future means of communication as mass media continue to become less popular, especially among the younger generation. Facebook, with an active user base of close to 3 billion people, has become the dominant communication platform today among youths and young adults (Ridout et al. 22). As such, it is necessary to find a way of addressing this concern of political polarization through these sites. Turcotte argues that there is a need to have strong laws and regulations regarding the use of these sites (528). These sites have only democratized information sharing by taking it from large media houses and handing it over to the masses.

The deliberate action of individuals to use these sites irresponsibly is causing tension in the society. Strict laws will ensure that individuals are held responsible for their statements in these sites. Nguyen and Tien believe that senior leaders in the country should be held to higher standards when using these sites (14). When a national leader makes a statement seen to be unfair attack to another political leader or a section of the society, they should be fully held responsible. Punitive measures such as relinquishing their top political offices if found responsible for spreading hate may help deter irresponsible use of these platforms. Sometimes it may be necessary to have online hate mongers given jail terms for using these sites to incite members of public against one another.

Conclusion

Facebook and twitter are some of the most powerful social media platforms in the modern society. As shown in the discussion, these platforms have made communication easier. By empowering individuals to share their ideas with members of the public, social media has redefined the political landscape in the United States and other parts of the world. The political class is now using Facebook and Twitter to influence the opinion of voters.

They are assured that their messages would not be edited as is always common when they use mass media platforms. However, the study shows that these platforms are now exacerbating political polarization in the country. People are currently using these platforms to launch attacks against those who they believe represent political ideas contrary to theirs. In the United States, top political leaders have been using Twitter to attack one another, a move that is causing political tension among their supporters. In the Middle East and North Africa, Facebook was the main driving force behind the Arab Spring.

A country like Libya is currently ungovernable because of the political tension fuelled by the social media. The researcher believe that social media is a revolutionary invention that helps in transforming the world into a global village by making it easy to share information. However, it is necessary to have tough regulations that would ensure that it is used responsibly.

Works Cited

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