Is the Social Network Working? (A Commentary on Political Commentary)

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Miranda de Moraes

AHAHAHAAH TRUMP 2016. Sucks nerds. See your candidate in jail!

Trump is a racist, homofobic [sic], sexist, corrupt, narcisistic bigot. He’s literaly [sic] Hitler, but worse.

I have family members who are voting for this lying piece of garbage: Hillary. Please please please just look at the wall of lies.

Partisan putdowns plastered my Facebook News Feed like never before.

The radical polarity of the 2016 presidential primary sparked passionate political commentary. Social media served as a potent channel for partisan expression: drawing allyships, rupturing relationships, and potentially manipulating election results.

The social network revolutionized communication, putting people in contact who are neither physically nor emotionally close. Users can publish virtually anything to anyone, from friends to foes to family to strangers. Sites like Facebook enable the quiet voice of the individual to blare. With one click, a personal belief can go viral.

Liana Sprowl, a third year religious studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, posted a picture on Facebook of a Chumash chief with the caption, “Worried immigrants might ruin your land? Must be tough.” Sprowl is of Native American descent and feels especially troubled by Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Her publication blew up, totaling to nearly 4,000 shares in support for her message.
The intangibility of the internet lets users hide behind a screen, which is especially useful for sharing controversial content. Extremist groups in particular relied on the anonymity of the internet to blast blasphemous concerns and crowd source for radical activism.

Gab.com is a “free speech social network” that lets users post viciously hateful material without censorship. A Pittsburgh synagogue gunman used this application to rally support for his impending act of anti Semitic terror, killing 11 people.

While cyberspace may insulate anonymity, it can also foster vulnerability and draw solidarity. Pantsuit Nation, a coalition of coping Clinton supporters, was formed on Facebook in response to her presidential defeat. A transgender man used this page as a safe haven to discuss a hate crime he experienced on a bus with Trump supporters. Retelling a triggering story is much easier on a screen than a microphone. Stories like his inspired thousands from Pantsuit Nation and similar pages to storm the nation’s capital at the Million Women March, in protest against gender inequality.

While some used social media to seek support, others found it to be a vacuum for relationship turmoil. Politics are taboo at the dinner table because they drive conflict. Many friendships exclude political discussion in order to preserve peace. However, social media makes broadcasting beliefs seem impersonal since they are put out to the public, rather than to an individual. Friendships were still scorched.

Sophia Khoury, a liberal student at Hillary Clinton’s Alma mater, blocked her best friend virtually and emotionally after viewing her friend’s candidate endorsements on Facebook. “She voted for Trump and posted way too much about it, I don’t even know if I can bear to see her again,” shared Sophia.

In other cases, friends were overly receptive to each other’s political publications. Troy Beckon, a first-year biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was particularly influenced by his friend’s cyber partisanship. “When I noticed my buddy was starting to post anti-Hillary memes, I couldn’t help but start questioning my views,” shared Troy. “I mean we’re on the same page about everything, so we should be voting the same.”

Many data analytics blame the manipulative power of social media for skewed election results. According to Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, Research Associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research, 62 percent of US adults get news on social media. The most popular fake news stories were most widely shared on Facebook and many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them. Twelve percent of Obama supporters believed false claims like “Clinton was in very poor health due to a serious illness,” reported a study conducted by Ohio State University researchers Richard Gunther, Paul A. Beck and Erik C. Nisbet.

Altogether, Allcott and Gentzkow found that the most discussed fake news stories tended to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, which explains why social media may have manipulated Trump’s electoral success. While the social network is a powerful combatant to bureaucracy–enabling the voice of the oppressed to finally matter–it also can simply reinforce centralized propaganda. Since anyone can post and since posts are not fact checked, fake news has blemished the integrity of social media.

Social media certainly proved to be a prominent vessel for political commentary this past election. It fostered fellowship among coping individuals; it united hateful extremists. It pushed friendships together; it ripped friendships apart. It bolstered real voices; it drowned real news. Is the social network really working?