Judging by the tone of political conversation in Canada, it would seem we are a nation divided, torn between liberal and conservative ideals, between the strict austerity of right-wing economics and the spend-more-to-make-more logic of the newer, hipper left.
Despite the trend of these polarized arguments going viral over social media, some researchers believe this may not be reflective of how the public really feels. Social media provides a platform that often amplifies the most extreme sides of a debate, while leaving the middle ground unexplored.
“What I see from a more political perspective is not that views are becoming more polarized, those views have always been there,” says Melanee Thomas, a professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. “I think what digital media facilitates is the minimization of voices that one disagrees with, and the amplification of voices one does agree with.”
The idea that many choose to consume information that validates their own worldviews is called an ‘echo chamber’, or confirmation bias, and can lead to a person becoming extremely defensive when their position is challenged.
“Where this is potentially problematic, from a few grounds, it is worth asking whether or not this is helpful in a democracy,” Thomas says.
Many decisions made by government are extremely polarizing, with valid arguments both for and against. With strong opinions come strong emotions, and with the low effort it takes to engage in an argument online, some social media users get caught up in circular arguments simply to justify their own position.
“People get stuck into these forced conflict situations online where somebody posts a negative comment then somebody criticizes them and they feel they need to respond,” says Bob Pickard, principal director of Signal Leadership Communications, a public relations firm that specializes in helping public figures avoid missteps in a social media saturated world.
“The amount of public energy that is spent going back and forth in an argument just to maintain the consistency of their originally stated position… it is really one of the more curious consequences of the new technology.”
Pickard has conducted research on how these polarized attitudes affect the public perception of a debate. Especially over social media, he feels that many Canadians view issues through a very selective filter.
“I think for the most part, people are not listening to the other side,” he says. “Which is a tragedy when you consider what social media allows people to do.”
Take the backlash the NDP government received over Bill 6, the farm safety bill, as an example of this. The bill was blasted by critics, and claims were thrown around that it would forever kill the family farm before the consequences of the bill were even really known. The law turned out to be sensible; but that is not how social media will remember it.
“Communication now can really start with listening and research on social media, but people might not take advantage as much as they could of that listening capability,” Pickard says. “They’re often using it as a projection mechanism so they can keep talking in this one way monologue to people and sort of bulldoze them with preformed views and opinions.”
Andrew Guess, a professor at New York University, whose research focuses on the effects of political media exposure on voters, agrees that the most controversial political arguments often are the ones to go viral over social media, but feels it is not necessarily reflective of the wider population.
“I just think that it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people. There are people that do live in echo chambers, people like Donald Trump who seem to be completely surrounded by an alternative reality,” he says. “But there are other people like that who only get their news from, say, sources with liberal views, and they have a very skewed and distorted view of the world as well.”
He suggests that people with more moderate views often do not engage with politically charged content in the same way as those with more polarized views. They may even avoid the conversation entirely if a debate is overly heated, effectively eliminating a voice from the online discussion of a certain issue.
Pickard agrees, saying that this could not only influence the public perception of the debate, but also how policy makers and campaigners feel they need to engage the public on these points.
“Social media really has been the enemy of moderate voices, it really has helped to drive people to opposite sides of an opinion,” he says. “The conservatives are more conservative than they have ever been in recent years, and the same is true of the left. This is the tendency. Moderation doesn’t sell as well on social media apparently.”
The silver lining in all of this may be that, for the first time in recent history, the political engagement of the average Canadian has skyrocketed. The 2015 Alberta provincial election saw the highest voter turnout in 22 years, with nearly 1.5 million Albertans, 58 per cent of the eligible voter base, making it out to the polls.
Compared to the turnout over the past five elections, which averaged about 50 per cent of the voter base, with a record low in 2008 of only 40 per cent, this is a huge increase and may suggest that engaging users with political content on social media is encouraging more involvement.
“I think if there is a spirit of public debate and people feel like they can contribute to a debate and have a sense of efficacy, a sense that others are listening to them,” Pickard says.
“[People feel] that if they advocate a certain point of view, they can help persuade in a campaign situation the government to change its policy or to support a party that wins the election, then maybe that is a good thing for sure.”
The editor responsible for this piece is Brendan Stasiewich, firstname.lastname@example.org