Social media’s descent into polarization
November 12, 2022
In the quest for profit, corporations have not just cajoled us into sacrificing our privacy — they have also increasingly polarized public opinion. Social media has become one of the most popular outlets for communication and transmitting information, resulting in unprecedented levels of control by a few select companies.
As of 2022, the average person on the internet spends 147 minutes per day on social media, the highest amount ever recorded. Though these platforms may seem to promote fair and inclusive dialogues, they are not public forums, designed solely for the free discussion of users; more accurately, they are tools run by for-profit corporations. To maximize such profit through increased user interaction, rather than displaying a diversity of viewpoints, they promote increasingly extreme content for clicks and views at the cost of the integrity of online communication. Since controversy fuels user engagement which leads to profit, these companies have no financial incentive to facilitate dialogue from a diverse subset of individuals, exacerbating the issue of polarization.
This phenomenon of surrounding users with only like-minded ideas is known as an echo chamber, dubbed after the echoing of ideas that inundate someone’s social media feed. Ethics and Philosophy Club Vice President Kabir Ramzan (11) emphasizes the issue of these systems.
You’re surrounded with opinions that reinforce your own beliefs, and you’re surrounded by content that you want to see more of. That can lead to really dangerous outcomes where you get focused on one belief, and maybe it’s a belief that’s just wrong, [but] everyone keeps agreeing with you.”
— Kabir Ramzan (11), Ethics and Philosophy Club Vice President
“You’re surrounded with opinions that kind of reinforce your own beliefs, and you’re surrounded by content that you want to see more of,” Kabir said. “It grows the problem because now you’re not having conversations with another perspective and you’re just validating your own [opinions] even more. That can lead to really dangerous outcomes where you get focused on one belief, and maybe it’s a belief that’s just wrong, [but] everyone keeps agreeing with you.”
The issue arises when people with different opinions interact. Constantly consuming similar content results in greater reinforcement of one’s beliefs, regardless of how misguided they may be. Such validation transforms into polarization, with individuals being led into increasingly more extreme content that aligns with their own opinions. Occasionally, this polarization can spark greater problems, resulting in hateful speech and blatant misinformation. Social media companies employ content moderation to solve this problem, removing comments as they see fit. Generally, this power is beneficial, allowing for the removal of hate while ensuring the platform fosters a healthy environment. For instance, Twitter has removed tweets that spread false or misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines. Because free speech is unprotected in this digital environment, companies are able to take these measures. But such moderation can just as easily be used to censor everyday civilians.
“All the social media companies are private organizations that [work] for profit [and are] their own companies,” Kabir said.“They have their own internal rules, and they don’t have to follow certain laws that [apply to a] public forum. Free speech on social media is not a thing, because that’s only applied in a public setting. And then the social media company is a private corporation, and can regulate and moderate whatever they want on that platform.”