What Problems are we Facing?
The ongoing pandemic has shed light on a major issue in our country. The United States is divided to a degree it has not seen in recent history. While there are many causes for the level of disagreement in our country, media in a variety of forms appears to play a major role. Who we listen to and where we get our information correlates strongly with where we stand on certain issues. News sources, social media groupings, and the rhetoric of our leadership seem to be driving us away from cooperation.
The Growing Divide
This growing division is well documented. In 2014, The Pew Research Center published an assessment of political division that stated, “Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” It can be difficult to really sit and process that information. Political overlap is diminishing to a shocking degree. Compounding on these alarming numbers, 27% of Democrats saw the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being and 36% of Republicans felt that the inverse was true. This level of political division gridlocks our legislative process, sours internal relations in our country, and puts progress in any direction at risk. If over 25% of a constituency believes that the other party is a risk to the well-being of the country, politicians are extremely disincentivized to cross the aisle on legislation. In the interest of reelection, public officials must act on (and possibly expand) this schism.
In a recent Op-Ed I wrote, I introduced results of a survey I conducted. The (albeit limited) results showed that 91% of participants felt that political division was at its lowest point in 50 years while only 32% saw the problem improving in the near future. The most major takeaway I had from this survey was that 100% of participants felt that the current state of polarization in the country was cause for concern. It seems that Americans on both side of the divide acknowledge that there is a concerning issue. When it came to assigning blame, however, only 18% stated that both parties were responsible for driving this division. 82% were willing to assign blame, and only 1 person blamed their own party. The implications of this could very well be dangerous.
The real-world consequences of division have been unfortunately highlighted during the politicization of public health surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. News coverage and political affiliation appear to play major roles in how people perceive and act on public health issues. A Gallup Article written last month by Robert Bird and Zacc Ritter introduces even more data to the discussion. In analyzing independent voters, their actions, and their “news media diet,” the authors discovered that those who intake liberal news wear masks, social distance, and stay home at vastly higher rates than independents who have a conservative news diet. The article continues on to say, “These trends suggest that individuals in a conservative news echo chamber are getting different kinds of information about COVID-19 that seem to contribute to the growing partisan gap in personal coronavirus-related health habits and the expectations they have for others.” This misinformation is a contributing factor to the United States leading the world in COVID-19 related deaths. Around 140,000 Americans have died from the virus.
This divisive commentary and the actions (or lack of action) that it encourages are an excellent representation of political division in the media. Continuing on in the article they write, “partisan differences in the ways Americans understand and react to the coronavirus pandemic are part of an ongoing culture war in which serious and nuanced public health debates are reduced to talking points that fit into distinct political identities.” What is most important to highlight here is that highly technical problems are often reduced to quick talking points. This goes beyond COVID-19 and raises much more broad concerns. How are consumers of specific media supposed to appropriately understand other complex concerns like international tension, climate change, or other domestic health concerns? In an effort to shoe-horn oversimplified facts into a political ideology, important information gets lost.
Another aspect of divisive commentary that has become especially relevant over the last 4 years has been that of social media. The recent administration has featured our president frequently tweeting attacks on congressional members, assertions of inaccurate information, and politically contentious content. Coupling this outreach with unchecked misinformation on Facebook, and social media has proven to be a huge catalyst for division. Does Social Media Make The Political Divide Worse? Is an article written last year by Peter Suciu. In this article, Suciu explores commentary from a variety of experts. In quoting Dr. Nathaniel Ivers, “individuals, groups and even foreign governments can propagate ideas and information; even when such ideas have little to no basis in reality.” The article continues on to explain that nearly half of Americans get their news from Facebook.
Social media provides a perfect storm of decentralized, focused, repetitive information that can be posted without any need for proof. Algorithms target people with content that does little to challenge their views and keeps people confirming any biases they may have. Prior to social media, we would have to make active decisions to insulate ourselves from dissenting opinions. In doing so, we have to acknowledge these opinions on some level. Social media algorithms that dictate what information is delivered to us makes this insulation automatic. Worse, since anybody can put together a legitimate looking source of information, valid, fact-based sources are less frequent. Without some way to regulate, fact check, or enforce action against misinformation, social media will continue to be a major driving force in political division.
This is a systemic issue that requires systemic change. Unfortunately, such change is gradual. It took several decades to wind up this divided, and it might take even more to fix it. I can say with great certainty that inter-generational change requires persistence and drive. We must cultivate a culture of honesty and permanent skepticism. I stated in my Op-Ed that we each have a role to play in repairing this division. We can all take part in calling out misinformation, educating ourselves on the issues at hand, and working to better the flow if information around us. We must take extra care to pass these lessons on to our children and grandchildren. As it was said by Todd Belt in the Forbes social media article, “A better solution is greater emphasis on education in media literacy.”