By: Cindy Lin

Senior Editor | Politics and the World

The modern politician dances an inevitable tango with social media. Agoras, beer halls, and other hallmark political forums of history can scarcely compare to how swift and wide information spreads on Twitter or Facebook. Social media permeates through some of the most obscure corners of the world. Ideas can be perpetually exchanged by almost anyone and from nearly anywhere.

It comes as no surprise that the open web has evolved into the political forum of the 21st century. Mass media is revolutionizing how politicians communicate to constituents, run campaigns, and interact with rivals. Social media is now an indispensable tool for winning elections. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, U.S. presidential candidates spent over $1.5 billion on ads in 2020 alone—with digital ads accounting for approximately 47.3% and 29.4% of the total spent by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively.

Today, social media platforms can exert extraordinary influence over politics. Take note of the suspensions of Trump’s social media accounts in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots. Following a paucity of decisions made by select individuals, the former President of the United States was effectively silenced on channels he used to directly communicate with the world. The public’s response was deeply divided—some dubbed the manoeuvres as flagrant censorship while others thought such action was long overdue.

Yet, the two factions, frothing at the mouth to prove their correctness, sheds light upon a more critical question. Is social media fuelling political polarization and, as a consequence, crippling bipartisanship?

The answer is convoluted and contentious, but perhaps an investigation of two factors driving such political vicissitude will be worthwhile: echo chambers and misinformation.

Deadly Reverberations in Echo Chambers

Social media seems to amplify partisan antipathy. This may feel counter-intuitive, given that the web democratizes information. Users today can access educational resources and correspond with diverse perspectives in a manner that would have been impossible in the past. Despite this, findings from the Pew Research Center show that the overall proportion of Americans who express consistently partisan beliefs has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%.

So why is it that political views are becoming less moderate? An open and democratic web should propel collaboration and productive conversation—not diminish bipartisanship.

One plausible explanation is that social media heightens emotional and moral messages by organizing users into virtual communities that only expose members to the opinions that they already agree with. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to build cross-community harmony. These like-minded communities are monikered echo chambers. Insiders refuse to recognize any views that contradict their own, and the confirmation bias runs rampant. Members are more likely to seek out and agree with views that already align with their pre-existing beliefs.

Social media algorithms propagate these echo chambers. TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter are amongst the most reproachable culprits. These platforms persistently show users similar content that induces them to become more satisfied and confident with existing beliefs. Instead of virtual communities acting as channels for open-minded dialogue, echo chambers isolate their members by discrediting outside voices and invoking cult-like behaviour.

Moreover, these communities are easy targets for political ads. Such propaganda pits groups against each other even further by augmenting the existing hostility between parties. What is even more concerning is that an experiment from Columbia University found that perceived social presence will reduce a user’s likelihood of fact-checking information—and echo chambers teem with activity. Thus, the danger culminates when politicians or partisan organizations begin to spread misinformation in these bubbles.

The Misinformation Pandemic

The spread of misinformation is threatening democracy and nurturing extremism. According to one study, 86% of Americans who read news on social media do not consistently fact-check the information being shared. Even at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, only 28% of U.S. adults could express confidence in their ability to verify news relating to the pandemic.

According to surveys conducted by MIT, false information spreads more rapidly and further than true information; misinformation on Twitter is 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. This effect is amplified when it comes to political news. Some attribute this occurrence to the novelty hypothesis: New and unusual information is more enticing to users, which aptly characterizes most pieces of false news.

MIT Sloan researchers describe the spread of false news as a narrative that is fabricated to present partisan content as fact. In a study surveying 500 Americans, those who falsely believed that they were well-informed on political knowledge were least helped even after being exposed to the veracity of claims. Despite today’s unprecedented connectivity, those with an opinion—in coalescence with other voices that share the same outlook—can cover their ears and shut their eyes to any information that challenges their beliefs.

The Future of Democracy

For the first time in history, anyone with a device and internet can deliver an opinion on social media, which have become de facto battlegrounds for modern debate. However, political polarization is not inevitable. There is much capacity for social media to facilitate cooperation rather than impede it.

The age of the open web has brought the world to the precipice of a remarkable future. Politicians now have a direct pipeline to their constituents. Activists can reach a wider audience than ever before. Every public figure can listen more, share more, and act more. Social media can mobilize change and elevate humanity.

Conflict does not have to be the way forward. Governments will need to legislate change—lobbyists and the private sector can work in tandem to bring more transparency to media. For example, a bipartisan review board specializing in fact-checking political information can be installed on all major social platforms. Twitter and Instagram are already taking steps in the right direction. Media enterprises must deviate from current profit-maximizing algorithms and integrate a more principled approach to cultivating virtual communities.

The final and most important catalyst for change lies in the hands of the public. The battle is on fighting misinformation and echo chambers, but the war is on the closing of the mind. Users across the globe must be more open to reason, proactive in education, and receptive to discourse. It is only with an open mind can humanity triumph in the war on tolerance—once and for all.