Left vs. Right: The internet’s impact on political polarity

 

GOP vs DemocratsWhen our Founding Fathers were discussing the possible creation of the United States as a sovereign nation independent of England many political ideas circulated. Some were radical, others more moderate and practical. One thing was certain, it took quite a long time for a new political idea to leave one’s mouth or pen before the idea flourished all over the colonies. Now someone with little or no technological know-how can utilize Twitter or You Tube to get an idea to the masses in very little time. Many of the idea’s recipients may never see or even know of the original thinker’s existence or even worse, his/her intentions. In addition to its ease of spread, technology allows us to filter sources of information to suit our own tastes, views, and desires. We can now pick and choose who or what feeds us ideas; some are biased and others are neutral. How does this impact our political views? Why would we choose a source that contradicts what we believe to be true when another source that can validate our own view is easily available? As technology becomes more prominent in American’s lives, exposure to opposing political views becomes more limited and avoidable.

We can watch the news and stream videos of what is going on in politics straight to our cell phones and home computers. Even on the move while walking down the street, a staunch conservative could exchanges ideas with another conservative on the other side of the country regarding a political event that has just occurred that morning. We take this constant state of information and ideas sharing for granted and rarely proceed with the proper caution one might want to take into account when considering the source of information. One innovator who saw this impact of technology on our lives was Bill Gates. He also noted over a decade ago how people would be using technology to get only what they want. As quoted by Cass Sunstein in Republic.com, “The “TV Guide” will almost be like a search portal where you’ll customize and say I’m never interested in this, but I am particularly interested in that” (Sunstein 44). Mr. Gates saw the desire in people to cater their entertainment content to suit their own likes and beliefs.

Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other sites on the internet allow us to digest news and discuss it with others. These sites and others allow people to organize into individual groups of people who share the same or similar ideas. Regarding these groups Sunstein says, “It seems plain that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another, and often without hearing contrary views” (Sunstein 71). He explains that when provided with the veil of anonymity, polarization amongst groups over the internet is also very likely to occur. Sunstein goes on to say that “If the group’s members are already inclined in a certain direction, they will offer a disproportionately large number of arguments going in that same direction, and a disproportionately small number of arguments going the other way” (Sunstein 67). When grouped with people with similar ideologies a person will shift even further towards the edge of the political spectrum.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to the internet and its offering of shared idea groups. Television news channels like MSNBC and Fox News can create content made specifically to a certain side of the political spectrum in an effort to sustain ratings and promote profitability. This “media bias arises endogenously as an optimal choice by profit-maximizing media in response to (some) voters’ preferences” (Bernhardt et al 3). Media outlets can profit from more biased content in an effort to secure viewer loyalty. Bernhardt et al explains this concept:

For example, MSNBC broadcasts the “Countdown” for more liberal viewers, followed by “Scarborough Country,” which targets conservatives. Similarly, Fox News Sunday, with its panel of four conservatives and one liberal appeals to a more Republican audience, while the immediately following program, “The Chris Matthews Show,” has a far more liberal panel. One can certainly not conclude from this that channels target a centrist audience, because few viewers of one program stick around for the other. (10)

As many people turn to the television as a source of political news and happenings we are constantly exposed to more and more biased programing on either side of the political spectrum. A true political moderate would have a much tougher time finding programing that meets his/her tastes as opposed to a conservative or liberal who has many offerings at his/her disposal.

What is the impact of these biased programming options on the American voter? A recent Pew Research poll shows that almost one-in-five (18%) Americans falsely believe President Obama is a Muslim. Of the people who disapprove of the job he is doing as President the number jumps to 67% (Pew Research Center). Two-thirds of the respondents who disapprove of his performance believe that he practices the Muslim faith. This was the narrative pushed by right-wing political commentators that has now become a reality to many people.

Some could point out that the internet and media offer various views and perspectives that were hard to come across before technology dominated our lives. Imagine how long it took for an idea to spread before television and the internet. The idea could mature and develop over time and be influenced by many other thinkers as it evolved. Now a single source or group can create their own facts and rapidly spread them to the American public such as the case with the rumor of President Obama being a Muslim. It is up to the information consumer to seek multiple sources for information and to isolate bias from his/her information stream. But as polarity generates more profits for media companies this can become increasingly difficult.

I consider myself to be center left in this current political climate. I enjoy discussing politics and sharing political stories on the popular website Twitter. This site allows a user to build a list of people to follow and people who follow the user in return. As a new user to Twitter, one of the first things I noticed was how conservatives only follow and discuss with other conservatives and liberals do the same. It is very difficult on Twitter to find an audience for moderate political views and just as difficult to find a source of moderate views on Twitter. This site allows a user to ignore those he/she does not agree with and only interact with those who have similar views. The only interaction between liberal and conservative members in relation to politics is usually an argument and name calling. Very rarely does an exchange take place between the two sides that is constructive. Each sees the other as the enemy. As a moderate on Twitter a user either picks a side or risks alienating his/her own followers with views that they oppose. As noted, in his research, by Eun-Ju Lee, “Online discussions might amplify the division between social groups holding different views” (Lee 21).

This phenomenon is not exclusive to either liberals or conservatives; each seems susceptible to a group’s polarization effects. It is in our nature to utilize the advances of technology to further narrow down our viewing and reading choices to suit our personalities and beliefs. Christine Rosen explains, “we have moved beyond narrowcasting into “egocasting”—a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear” (Remler 125). This age of instant entertainment that caters to the shorter attention span of the common-denominator-consumer-of-media serves as a catalyst for this new era of “egocasting.” Instant gratification dominates our lives thanks to developments in technology and manufacturing.

Technology proves to be a double edged sword when the spread of ideas is considered. It becomes more and more entrenched in our daily lives and has an impact on our political views. As people are able to pick and choose their sources of information, they tend to stick with those that validate their own opinions and research shows it “seems very likely that individuals come to categorize other discussants as well as themselves into social groups and polarize their opinions” (Lee 21). Our internet and television viewing habits tend to polarize our own political opinions toward the extreme.

 

 

Lee, Eun-Ju. “Deindividuation Effects on Group Polarization in Computer-Mediated Communication” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany. 25 June 2009 Web. 03 October 2010.
Bernhardt, Dan & Krasa, Stefan & Polborn, Mattias. “Political Polarization and the Electoral Effects of Media Bias.” Journal of Public Economics vol. 92 (2004): 1092-1104. Print.
Sunstein, Cass. Republic.com. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.
Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2010. Web. 03 October 2010.
Rosen, Christine. “The Age of Egocasting.” Texting: Clear Communications for Various Contexts. Ed. Nancy Remler. Boston, Ma: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010. 111-129. Print.

About the Author

Jason Parker