Social media and politics are two things people engage with almost every day. More often than not, it’s a simple interaction with politics on social media, such as retweeting a post from a politician or liking a comment that makes fun of one. A slightly deeper engagement with politics on social media can sometimes take the form of a conversation between opposing views. However, it is unlikely that this conversation manifests any real understanding of the other side’s arguments or remains civil. There is a disturbing lack of respect for the political opinions of others on social media. This article seeks to discover why that is and possible solutions to solve it.
Before looking at the origins of the hostility in the interactions, it must be known with full certainty that this problem exists at all. Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center found in their study, “The Political Environment on Social Media,” that, of the social media users surveyed, “59% say their social media interactions with those with opposing political views are stressful and frustrating – although 35% find them interesting and informative.” It’s clear that the majority of people have a difficult time engaging in political conversations on social media. The cause of the participant’s discomfort seems to come from the harsh language and hostility that often comes with conversations about these sensitive political topics. This is outlined by Lisa Kruse et al in their study, “Social Media as a Public Sphere? Politics on Social Media.” They found that, “participants reported that “Facebook fights,” insults, personal attacks, and degrading language were par for the course when social media users encountered others with differing political opinions.” Thus, the problem is clear. There is too much hostility and polarization surrounding politics on social media for any effective discourse.
The impacts to this, however, are far bigger than just personal frustration. Kruse et al furthers that, “despite many participants’ claims that social media were not the right space for politics, a handful of them did post, repost, or “like” political items. However, these participants almost exclusively did so with people they knew would agree with their political views.” Because some people essentially cyberbully others with opposing views into silence, no one wants to engage in any real political discussion with the other side. Political discourse is meant to encourage problem solving, but without it there isn’t any consideration of the potential flaws in the solutions that either side presents. When people only engage with likeminded peers, the result is simply an echo chamber of unrivaled ideas. But this isn’t the only impact of a polarizing political climate.
Perhaps an even more relevant effect is the lack of action that comes with a hostile political environment on social media. If no one wants to engage with the other side, there can be no real action that could come about from political conversations. Mark Gerzon of the Christian Science Monitor echoes this in his article, “Four Ways to Fix American Politics.” He writes that, “When diverse groups connect in constructive dialogue, they make progress on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to…education reform. But we have to get past the soaring rhetoric from the right and the left about how they alone can “save America.” We have to get down to the real business of learning and applying boundary-crossing skills.” The only way any real action can take place is through effective, civil discourse between opposing views. If this problem persists, however, it’s unlikely that any action will be seen at all.
It’s apparent that the lack of civil discourse on social media is a problem with widespread impacts. There also seems to be a relatively simple explanation for why this problem exists on social media. Previously cited authors Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center additionally found that, “while a substantial share of social media users consider social platforms to be an angrier, less respectful and less civil place than other venues, many indicate they don’t see too much difference between political conversations on social media and those taking place elsewhere.” The hostility on social media is merely a reflection of the polarizing political climate offline. Many people don’t like voicing their opinions on social media or in the real world because they’re afraid of being ridiculed or confronted about their point of view. The hostility exists offline almost as much as it does online.
The key to solving this is easier said than done. The two prominent political parties should just work together. Bipartisanship isn’t common, but it’s not impossible. If bipartisanship were to be more widely practiced in our government, it’s likely that the effect would transfer from the top down. More people in general might be willing to be civil in conversations and come to a compromise of ideas if politicians could come to an agreement on legislation that benefits both sides. Again, this is much easier said than done, but it would be a good first step to calming the political polarization surrounding the country today.
Duggan, Maeve, and Aaron Smith. “Americans, Politics and Social Media.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 3 Jan. 2018 www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/25/the-political-environment-on-social-media/.
Gerzon, Mark. “Four Ways to Fix American Politics.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 25 Apr. 2016, www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics- Voices/2016/0425/Four- ways-to-fix-American-politics?cmpid=gigya-tw.
Kruse, Lisa M., et al. “Social Media as a Public Sphere? Politics on Social Media.” Sociological Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Winter2018, pp. 62-84.