While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is to not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
What effect is hyperpartisanship in the media having on our democracy?
In the past six months, I have been called a liberal scumbag, mindless leftist, TWAT, pedophile lover, and my all-time favorite, fascist. Standing up for Black lives and the fight for racial equality online has automatically made users who disagree with my views paint me as a donkey-riding believer carrying my blue flag of righteousness.
These people might be surprised to find out that I do not identify as a Democrat. I am not loyal to any political party. My beliefs and what I am willing to fight for stems from my core values and from my understanding of how I can use my gifts to better humanity. I am a progressive-minded activist who believes small acts of bravery and kindness can make a difference. I believe in equality, justice and freedom of expression for all, across the political spectrum. So why does this make me a “liberal?” Why put me in that box? Why see me as a decontextualized representative of a political party, instead of an individual human being, with complexity, history, a family, and a nuanced story of my own?
The word polarization has been flying around a lot lately. Politics are polarized; the media is polarized. Polarization seems to be seeping into every aspect of our lives, especially in those moments in which we turn our backs to our neighbors, colleagues and family members who are of a different political persuasion. We are so bent on our political side being the right and moral one, that we are willing to sever these essential communal ties. Polarization, or the division into two sharply contrasting groups, sets of options or beliefs is perhaps best illustrated by the moment in which I was called a fascist. By the moments that we speak up for our beliefs and those who oppose us relegate us to an idea. We are no longer a person; rather a dehumanized, virtual representation of a set of beliefs that they had come to equate with fascism. I was no longer the person they went to school with, drank beer with, played soccer with, or raised children with. I was the embodiment of all that they hate. How is it possible that we have gotten to a place where one person’s belief in freedom for all equates to another’s fear of fascism? How has our public debate become this confused? How has critical analysis come to be seen as unpatriotic?
But I am not a one-dimensional person. There is more than one side to my opinions, to my actions, to who I am. I am not just ‘on the left’ – I am a whole person, with whole ideas that I build and challenge every day. And I know there are people ‘on the right’ who do the same thing, and who feel equally frustrated with the oversimplification of who they are into a neat politically-aligned ideological box.
So how did we get here? How did we arrive at calling each other names like toddlers online? How have we become so intractably divided that we see no common ground left to stand on? Are we really as polarized as life seems on Facebook or Twitter?
Exploring these questions can help us to understand how our engagement with one another through online spaces is impacting our offline lives and our democracy at large. It is well known that these platforms create echo chambers through the employment of relevancy-based algorithms. The more I like, the more I see, the more I like… a vicious cycle that is hard for any user to break free from, regardless of political affiliation. These echo chambers amplify legitimate grievances and create a misidentification of what is really happening, placing citizens at odds with one another over something as simple as wearing a mask. The lines between political beliefs and morality have become blurred, making it more and more difficult to see those who hold alternative views as good, decent people.
These digital platforms, in tandem with traditional media outlets, create idolized figureheads who personify the politics that they represent. Figureheads that discourage people to engage empathetically and consciously as if an actual human being was the one they were delivering their Tweet to. And in the new Attention Economy the more extreme the content and the language, the more amplified it becomes, weaponizing a fear of “the other” in a way print-based media never could.
To truly understand the social issues impacting America today, to truly understand racism, sexism, wage-gaps, climate change, and all the rest involves the development of a web of knowledge and the ability to critically analyze the information available for each given issue. It also requires that that information be trustworthy, credible and verified. But think about the primary means by which we receive information: consider how a broadcast news segment, a Facebook post, a Tweet or a meme is created. The end goal for each of those pieces of media is a segment of information designed to capture attention. These pieces of information might lead to a deeper investigation, but at first glance all four of those examples, if taken as is without any further diving, would provide only a de-contextualized, often oversimplified portion of the actual story. And we are happy to eat up these partial segments of information, perfectly packaged for our fast-scrolling digital lives.
The brain craves this simplicity making it easy to place all of the blame for hyperpartisanship on the media and our government. But just as we should be reflecting on these mechanisms of polarization, we should at the same time be looking in a mirror.
We live in a media landscape of our own making. While we can’t control the content that is available to us, or other people’s reactions to it, we can choose what we decide to give our attention to. We can build our own networks and develop our own voices. We can challenge ourselves to find a way to create commonality, to strive for an empathetic understanding of each other and our differences, online and offline.
It can be overwhelming and exhausting to confront all the problems we face in our online ecosystem. It feels that way because it is hard for us to believe that great change can come from the smallest places. But it can. I have felt it in the moments I connected with a student, friend or family member. In those moments when we stop feeling powerless and start feeling the power to create change that is in each and every one of us.
As more and more of our lives become digitized, it is imperative to the success of our democracy that we find a way to build compassion into our interactions with each other online; that we strive to communicate with decency and integrity; that we seek truth and avoid misleading oversimplifications. That we educate ourselves and generations to come on what it means to be a media literate digital citizen, engaging online with one another.
United We Stand. Divided We Fall.
questions to consider
What can we as citizens do in our daily lives to address hyperpartisanship and polarization?
How can our schools and other civic institutions help us develop a way of thinking about the world that positions critical analysis as patriotism?
How can you retain hope, for yourself and others, when there are no easy answers or solutions?
actions to take
Challenge yourself to seek out sources of information that present contrasting viewpoints to your own. Maintain an open mind.
Have a conversation with someone whose views don’t align with your own politically. Ask them questions. Listen to their answers. Avoid the need to correct, argue, or assert your own beliefs.
Pause before entering into a confrontation with someone online. Think about where that form of interaction is likely to lead. Is there a better, less publicly adversarial, way to discuss the issues?
Avoid oversimplifications of issues, others, and the world at large.
How media reflects polarized politics in this page by Pew Research dedicated to articles analyzing political polarization in the US
Divided Politics: Divided Nation. The United States is caught in a partisan hyper conflict that divides politicians, communities—and even families. Politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly-held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno. This polarization has become so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective.
We need political parties. But their rabid partisanship could destroy American democracy article by Vox
The Disunited States: How partisan politics is polarising the US article by AlJazeera
America’s political system isn’t broken. The truth is scarier: It’s working exactly as designed. In this book, journalist Ezra Klein reveals how that system is polarizing us — and how we are polarizing it — with disastrous results.
Listen to the Podcast Unpacking Political Polarization