by Lydia Massey, Public Communication major at the University of Vermont.
The Arab Spring uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia and swept the Middle East and North Africa inspired a wave of conversation surrounding social media as a means of political change by connecting and mobilizing protesters. The Egyptian Revolution, dubbed the Facebook Revolution, began on January 25, 2011 when masses of Egyptian protesters that connected via Facebook took to the streets of Cairo and other cities to demand the surrender of President Mubarak’s regime. Shortly thereafter, Mubarak was forced to step down. However, as the aftermath of the initial surge of protests began to unfold, Egyptians faced divided political views. Egypt’s post-revolution discourse and political polarization was intensified on social media, the very platform that was initially praised as the driver of their political revolution. The flaws of social media and how users engage with it quickly became apparent: not only can it drive positive change, but it can also amplify polarization and extremism.
Wael Ghonim, creator of the Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said,” that initially sparked Egyptian protesters in 2011, discusses the need to address the shortcomings of social media as a political tool in his 2016 Ted Talk, “Let’s Design Social Media That Drives Real Change.” As he states, “While it’s true that polarization is primarily driven by our human behavior, social media shapes this behavior and magnifies its impact.” (Ghonim, 2016) Social media amplifies the human instinct to respond quickly and sharply. Users broadcast their political opinions instantaneously, leaving little time to reflect or fact-check. This inevitably leads to sensationalized posts that lack critical thinking and disregard opposing viewpoints. Furthermore, when a user is confronted with someone’s opposing view, they unfollow or block the source instead of engaging in open dialogue around the issue. In the instance where users do respond to an opposing view, it often becomes hostile, lacking the mutual respect and co-listening necessary for productive conversations between opposing viewpoints. This further facilitates political polarization by saturating users’ social media feeds with similar political opinions and like-minded individuals. As Ghonim noted in his speech, social media mostly contributed to polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech.” (Ghonim, 2016)
Ghonim is not alone in this belief. Curtis Hougland, CEO of Attentionusa.com, discusses in an article how social media leads to more polarized societies by delivering users content complementary to their own views and barring opposing narratives. Hougland writes, “The ecosystem of social media is predicated on delivering more of what the user already likes. This, precisely, is the function of a Follow or Like. In this way, social media coagulates rather than fragments online.” (Hougland, 2014) It is true that users can define their social media experience by self-exposure and choosing to follow other users that confirm their own existing opinions. However, part of this experience is created by the social media platform itself, which uses complex algorithms to deliver content to users that is complementary to their social media activity– in other words, the more a user likes or follows content that supports their own beliefs, the more related content shows up on their feed. Roheeni Saxena tackles this idea in her article for ARS Technica, explaining, “Existing social-media algorithms feed users news sources that they have previously shown interest in. Over time, this narrows the news sources of Facebook users and tends to expose them to information that reinforces their own perspectives. So they become increasingly polarized.” (Saxena, 2017) Perhaps the most troubling element is that many users are unaware that this opinion mining occurs on social media. “A 2015 study suggested that more than 60% of Facebook users are entirely unaware of any curation on Facebook at all, believing instead that every single story from their friends and followed pages appeared in their news feed.” (Hern, 2017) This skews users’ perception of what is public opinion as opposed to their own thoughts and views. Evidently, social media can be useful to connect people politically, but it can also be detrimental by creating an online landscape that is increasingly polarized and lacks differing points of view. The latter component of social media is one to be addressed if we want to move forward as a society and continue to use social media as a driver of political change. We need to develop social media sphere that promotes and encourages honest discussion of contrasting perspectives instead of perpetuating individual echo chambers.