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Social media and political polarization

Former President Barack Obama said in an interview with The New Yorker before leaving office that the internet is increasing the rate of political polarization. “The capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate,” he said. The internet has been labeled as the villain in our increasingly polarized nation, but new research has shown that the culprit isn’t so tech-savvy.

It’s easy to agree with the argument that the internet is increasing polarization because as soon as you enter the online platforms of Facebook, Twitter and more, you are pummeled with opinionated memes, pictures, comment fights and posts that seem to highlight the extreme ways parties disagree.

However, recent research conducted by a team of Stanford University and Brown University professors has found that in a time when the younger generation is taking the internet by storm, the elderly demographic is where polarization thrives. The researchers collected data from 1996 to 2012, and concluded that those who were least likely to use the internet at that time, aged 65 and up, saw the largest increase in polarized views. The study also concluded that the younger age groups with higher levels of access to the internet had a decrease in polarized views.

The internet can frequently serve as an echo chamber. When a viewer goes online, they purposely seek out views and ideas that they already agree with, and seldom search for conflicting sources. However, the internet also provides means for social justice movements. #MeToo, March for Our Lives, the Black Lives Matter movement and others have found platforms and gained momentum online. This is because as ideas expand, they begin to reach new areas and individuals even if they are not purposely sought after, and therefore have the opportunity to educate or change the minds of those who might not have originally agreed with a certain ideal.

“Fake news” has been riding the national spotlight ever since the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton credited her loss partially to fake news and Facebook ads. President Donald Trump tweets frequently on the negative influence of the “liars” that are the major media presences: The New York Times, ABC and CNN have all taken hits. But even though the internet has provided a platform for these arguments and political discourses — if you can call it discourse — it is not the main contributor to our nation’s increasing polarization.

This is not an argument that the internet and social platforms such as Facebook and Google have no effect on polarization. It is no mystery that these platforms are expanding and thriving, and that their influence may begin to change. As we move forward, we must monitor these sites to ensure that they do not increase their influence on political polarization. Our nation’s views are drifting away from each other, and we must take active steps toward decreasing the gap to keep ourselves afloat.

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