Written by Yulissa Chavez.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss
Politics may appear problematic but being ill-informed on policies or platforms before voting is even more problematic. Social media provides users with a mass of information, opinions, and ideas in a matter of seconds; however, this accessibility can also be counterintuitive for those who may not understand the multifaceted factors that are involved in U.S politics and other news.
Dr. Gina Chen, an Assistant Professor and Assistant Director for the Center of Media Engagement at the Moody College of Communications, specializes in “the online conversation around the news.” She claims that people should be held responsible to diversify their media consumption by engaging in multiple social media outlets, as well as news sources.
According to her, the primary factors that hinder people from understanding politics through the social media lens are filter bubbles, political identity, and the mechanics of social media platforms.
First, the intention of each social media platform is vital in understanding its usefulness when it comes to discussing controversial topics. As students, it is easy to fall victim to the social media algorithm that only shows us one side of the story—the story we agree with, the story our friends agree with. “Although we don’t know how it works, we know that the partisan news that you share is the partisan news you are exposed to. Facebook does it and Twitter also does it to some extent,” Dr. Chen explains. As a result of “filter bubbles,” users of social media are seeing their worldview over and over again, which creates an inflated sense of agreement.
Second, political identity is very powerful and can ultimately sway people away from exploring other perspectives. People who align more strongly with one political ideology tend to dismiss or deny another viewpoint. “It seems like a solution would be to expose people to their opposing viewpoint through the algorithm, but that actually sometimes makes people more entrenched to their partisan identity,” Dr. Chen explains.
Third, in addition to partisanship limiting people’s interaction with other ideas, some people choose to disregard news outlets altogether due to the skepticism of fake news. “With more people talking about fake news, people think there is more fake news and now we also have concerted efforts by a foreign power to try to distort public opinion using bots and misinformation.” This, therefore, further encourages individuals to remain ignorant.
On the other hand, social media can also be viewed as a platform for activism—it can challenge an individual’s perspective, engage people in civil discussion, and create an appreciation for philosophy and logic. “Social media has made activism attractive, but it needs to be more than a hashtag,” Dr. Chen states. Simply sharing a post or liking a news article is not enough.
How can students stay informed in a nonpartisan way? The answer is simple: “[they] have to look at news critically. It is better to find the same story in five different news outlets than one.” Exposure to different perspectives and attitudes can increase one’s understanding of a multifaceted issue that could peek more interest. It is the responsibility of people to seek knowledge and become exposed, without that exposure, we have discrepancies in understanding politics—and the world.
As students, we must continue to promote discussion through civil debate and challenging conversations, but we must also do our research to culminate mature and refined opinions.