Facebooking and Tweeting Your Way To a Politically Polarized Society
By Eline Kimmel
It may be difficult to imagine, but just a few decades ago there was a time when citizens felt there wasn’t much to choose from when it came to politics in the US. Almost all politicians were seen to hover somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. In that environment, it did not seem to matter much whether you were voting democrat or republican, as effectively most of their policies represented a moderate stance. The opposite is true today. Since the 1980s, American politics have become incredibly polarized. This research published in PLoS ONE, for instance, offers a stunning visualization of just how polarized the US Congress has become in recent years.
It is not just the politicians who have become more ideologically extreme in their political views. As shown in this report by the Pew Research Center, the general American population has become increasingly partisan over the last few decades when it comes to their political views. As with any sociological phenomenon, the explanation as to why this political polarization is occurring is complicated. One element, however, seems to be fundamental in the continuous increase of political polarization: the impact of social and new media.
In the old media environment before the internet, TV and radio programs captured a very large audience simply because consumers had little media outlets to choose from. This meant that when it came to political news, almost everyone would watch the same content. Moreover, since those media outlets wanted to appeal to as large an audience as possible, their coverage was generally presented from a moderate point of view as to not put off any members of the audience. The current media environment still has a number of these ‘catch-all’ outlets, but ‘narrowcasting’ seems to be the trend nowadays.
Narrowcasting refers to media outlets tailoring their content to a very specific segment of a large audience, often to make advertising during these programs more attractive for companies. Due to the developments in cable television, consumers now have a staggering amount of TV channels to choose from. More and more media outlets are producing content for a small group of consumers. This includes, for example, news geared toward financial professionals. Recently, more and more ‘news’ and opinion programs are produced to appeal to a specific audience that has been selected on the basis of their particular political affiliation. Since research has shown that consumers seek out media content that already reflects (rather than challenges) their political worldview, this means that the current media environment is perfectly suited for reinforcing people’s partisan leanings rather than offering conflicting opinions that might drive these consumers more toward the middle of the political spectrum.
It is not just this new media environment that reinforces partisan leanings. Social media plays a big role too. Just as with media outlets, people are predisposed to follow those people on social media who share the same political points of view. On Twitter, for instance, this means that people tend to follow only those politicians that they already agree with. When these politicians become more polarized in their views and resort to social media to voice these opinions, they influence an audience that has little chance of hearing the other side of the story. What is important to note is that there is a large group of citizens who use these self selecting options of the current media environment to opt out of political information altogether. In other words, they consume little to no political information and become especially disengaged from the political sphere.
Now it is not hard to see why these developments matter for democratic political processes. As the politically engaged segment of the population becomes more and more ideologically distant from the other political side, chances that more extreme politicians are elected rise. Subsequently, these elected very right wing or left wing political candidates do not appeal very much to the disengaged group. They have very little incentive to become more involved in the political process now that they have to choose between candidates that are so distantly located from their own political views. Interesting recent examples were the candidatures of Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders in the latest presidential primaries. These candidates were very popular with the more ideologically extreme members of their party. However, their appeal to the general electorate, not taking into account how this might have changed depending on who they would have run against in the general election, was less strong.
So, the next time you try to tune out the political talk by your relative when passing the turkey at Thanksgiving, it might be worth it to hear his or her point of view. After all, this might be one of the only instances when you still get to hear a different opinion.