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Partisan boundaries stifle discourse on Facebook

Commentary/Opinion by

In theory, social media platforms should be a boundless, intellectual, free market for sharing ideas. It’s a platform for individuals to effortlessly and instantly share their views. In turn, all users would be subjected to a wide range of views from all sides of the ideological spectrum.

This, however, has not proved to be the case. Facebook feeds have become echo chambers of ideas, where we are exposed primarily to content that reinforces our own biases and viewpoints. This polarization is largely due to the nature of Facebook and Google’s personalization algorithms. The more that users click, like, and share content that resonates with their beliefs, the more they are exposed to similar stories. This results in the so-called ‘blue feed, red feed’ phenomenon, in which users are sheltered from ideologies other than their own. Exposure to such groupthink is a slippery slope towards social divisions that cause polarization between left and right.

We must be critical and conscious of the media that is fed to us through our electronic screens. We must make an effort to engage with opinions that we disagree with.

In its 12 years of existence, Facebook has transformed into arguably the most influential media company in human history. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 44 per cent of Americans access their news primarily via Facebook. With nearly 1.8 billion users worldwide, Facebook wields unfathomable power to influence the news that the world consumes, and so must recognize the journalistic responsibilities that come with it. This is especially pertinent after a former Facebook employee revealed that the company suppressed right-wing news stories on their platform.

Be critical of the news you consume. Burst the intellectual bubbles that surround you.

At the end of the day, Facebook is a for-profit corporation that understands that challenging and upsetting its users through exposure to dissenting views will drive them away. However, the online echo chamber that results from Facebook’s business practices have an adverse effect on our ideological development.

If we are not exposed to differing opinions, it will become impossible for us to critically assess our own. We cannot develop intellectually without confrontations to our understanding, as they will either challenge our views or strengthen our conviction. Critical reflection is essential to intellectual growth: It was Socrates who told us that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

All of this is to say that the polarization of social media might lead one to believe that they are bound to choose between either far left or right camp, with no options in between. Both liberals and conservatives stand to benefit by exposing themselves to the arguments of the other side, outside of the confines of their respective blue and red feeds. This can lead them to reconsider the foundations of their ideas, achieve common ground, and avoid the radicalizing effects of the group mentality.

We must be conscious of the remarkable ability of our social media feeds to inform us, to rile us up, and to tell us who and what we should be mad at. We live in a world in which computer algorithms divide us, and where online platforms that should promote a healthy discourse are extremely polarized.

In light of this, us users need to be active in fighting back against political polarization. Be critical of the news you consume. Burst the intellectual bubbles that surround you. Welcome the voices of those you disagree with, regardless of how offensive or disruptive you may find them. Only by doing this can we break the bounds of ideological divides.

 

Evan Thomas is a very tall U2 International Development Studies and History student. He doesn’t like being asked if he plays basketball, but enjoys playing basketball nonetheless.

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