Can Politics Survive the Growth of Social Media?

Carl Golden, senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, argues that despite continual mass shooting incidents in the U.S., gun rights absolutists will win Congress once more, and either no or purely cosmetic action will take place.


Democracy is beginning to crack under the weight of tribal politics and fictitious news. The causes of these fissures are the result of many considerable causes; political partisanship on the national, state and local level, TV networks and radio stations that are designed only to appease a particular political tribe, and most portentously, social media applications with its algorithms designed to “think for us.” Social media’s involvement has created a society of political brainwashing that further separates us from fact and unbiased agendas. This is what was so disturbing about the Cambridge Analytica & Facebook scandal, for it was not just about the stealing of the public’s data, but using that stolen data to successfully achieve a mass scale societal brainwashing.

Smartphones and the internet have been an immense element for exacerbating our political divisions. No matter what new algorithms or regulations that the leadership team over at Facebook strategically puts in place, it will do little to reduce the polarity of our politics. (As a side note about Zuckerberg’s proposed changes; I personally don’t feel any confidence about his steps to improve his application for the better of society. Any individual(s) that continuously works to engineer new ways to keep people hooked on their application from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep doesn’t get my trust. To me, it’s similar to your local heroin dealer promising to use his product in a different manner in hopes it will reduce suffering in the neighborhood.) There are many reasons for the political detachment we are currently experiencing. For one, the majority of society is just not neurologically capable of navigating the internet or social media without predominantly utilizing the primitive areas of our brain. Upon observation, the internet and social media have exposed how primitive we are in the face of such great technologies. These platforms of communication cause a large part of our society to fall further into their political “tribes.” No matter how evolved humans have become, millions of years of evolution have not prepared us for the power of “tweets” and “likes.”

This new technology has also contributed to a shortened attention span and because of this anything past 280 characters or a video longer than one minute causes us to lose concentration and just plainly bores us (for example, if you are still reading this, congrats you have an attention span longer than the average person.). Topics revolving around politics, government, economic and social justice are very complex issues and without an effective attention span cognitively equipped, then how are we to learn of democracies complexities and not be bored of its details? We simply can’t and it causes us to take a stand on issues that are expressed by the partisan opinions of tweets and memes.

If we are only subscribing to pages and people who think like us, we neglect ourselves from understanding the other side, causing us to withdraw from engaging in any thoughtful discussion with those whom have diverse principles. This act further places the public into a profounder ideological bubble. Yes, I know you are probably saying, “Sean have you seen some of these people on the internet, they are insane!” I have and I completely agree with anyone who exclaims that viewpoint, for there are some people whom are so lost and extreme in their politics that engagement may be pointless.

Nevertheless, these hyper-partisan individuals only calculate into a small fraction of our population and if we can personally engage with people with different beliefs, it will reduce the likelihood of more of these extremely biased individuals from falling further into the depths of political division.

To fix our politics, we need not only to be politically engaged and present in the voting booth, we must also learn how to civically engage with one another. It is vital that society recalls how to become non-defensive, use active listening and apply understanding when we are observing a person’s political beliefs that differs from our very own. We forgot this art of civility because of the political bubble in which many of us currently habituate in. Political divisive Facebook posts, tweets and memes are only designed to divide individuals ideologically further. This allows people to become comfortable only with their political allies and political philosophies, which results in people reacting with great sensitivity and discomfort when they are presented with different views. Thus, in an effort to avoid such negative emotions and distress, individuals simply place the person(s) into the category of a “political enemy”, and erases them from their technological circle. This allows a person to avoid any negative emotions while using social media and finding comfort in those whom think only like them. With technology advancing at its current heightened pace, this divide will only grow further and our political divisions will be at heights even more consequential and devastating than it is now. This is why the public must take action and learn to get uncomfortable by openly and rationally discussing opposing political views. They must also begin to move away from using sites such as Reddit and 4chan, political divisive websites and from pages on social media applications that are designed to show explicit political bias. Colleges and universities should promote political clubs to host forums bringing Republicans and Democrats together discussing party philosophies to decrease partisanships on campuses. Towns and committees should engage in discussions that can present unbiased dialogues about one another’s political beliefs. These actions are necessary if we are to keep engagement and understanding with each other in this time of political contention. In the end we must practice in our thoughts, the quote by Sherry Turkle, in which, she states that, “Intelligence once meant more than what any artificial intelligence does. It used to include sensibility, sensitivity, awareness, discernment, reason, acumen, and wit.”

Let us be human again and deny power to the machines and applications, it is one of two ways to ensure the survival of our democracy. The other is well, I think we all know the other.

Sean Foley is a member of the Union County Young Democrats executive board and a social worker based out of Union County.

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