Social media has enabled the divide to widen
While President Joe Biden campaigned on unity, and suggested we needed to end our “uncivil war,” the fact remains that nearly a year into his first term; the country is even more divided than ever. That fact remains clear on various online platforms that could more accurately be labeled “anti-social media.” There was open contempt before the 2020 election, but instead of the country unifying, social media has enabled the divide to widen.
“The very worst development in social media during 2021 was the acceleration of pernicious political posts,” explained James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
“Social media has been a friendly platform for spewing irresponsible ideology for years, but 2021 set a new nadir,” added Bailey. “Most of the decline can be attributed to the 2020 elections, including but not limited to accusations of voter fraud and the January 6th insurrection. It’s perfectly legitimate to question election results and protest at the Capital. But social media allowed these beefs to explode into raged crusades.”
Moreover, there may have been a time when it could be said Americans weren’t political enough, or didn’t pay enough attention to politics, but it seems today that is what defines us almost too much.
“It’s ironic that democracy was crafted around the idea that the more the populace participated, the better collective and individual welfare would be,” Bailey noted. “That fundamental premise is now precarious. One-hundred and ninety years ago, In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville sounded a cautionary note about political participation. That note has become a shriek, thanks in no small part to social media.”
For younger users, it wasn’t arguing politics on social media, but there were still other ominous trends that likely could get worse before they get better.
“At the micro level, the worst social media trends of 2021 have to be the inexcusable TikTok challenges like ‘Slap a Teacher Day,’ but the macro level has to be the continued degradation of teen mental health,” said Dr. Dustin York, associate professor of communication at Maryville University.
More Of The Same
Sadly, there is little reason to expect that as the calendar flips to a New Year that anything will change. The country will remain divided, but it will be business as usual on the platforms.
“2022 will be a continuation of 2021; maybe even more frenzied. American’s used to be political every four years during the presidential election cycle,” said Bailey. “Now, every day is a warrior’s day, especially to the many millions of people who use social media to gather news and express views. Virtual vitriol is now a constant. There will be some maneuvering in the social media ‘metaverse,’ to be sure. Many of these machinations will be simple business decisions. The problem is that social media is not bound to business models in the way that, say, manufacturing is. There are no barriers to entry. A server, a webpage, and an attitude is all it takes.”
Given the recent scrutiny that Facebook and the other platforms have faced, the question is why something isn’t being done to address these various issues? And there is likely no easy answer.
“Unfortunately, there is no congressional will to regulate social media content,” explained Bailey. “The Federal Communications Commission’s section 230 isn’t going to be updated because legislators on both sides of the aisle benefit from responsible and irresponsible social media. We should all expect social media to be constructive and destructive well into the future.”
It isn’t even clear how social media could be regulated. However, Dr. Colin Campbell, assistant professor of marketing within the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego, offered a few suggestions.
“In terms of regulation, I see the following being helpful/needed changes: make social media ‘closed’ by default so that user posts can’t go viral unless a user has explicitly opted in to that; increase verification of social media users. China already does this where social accounts are tied to a national identity number. This makes it much easier for users to be effectively banned if they post inappropriate content.”
Campbell also suggested it may be necessary to overturn the current laws – notably Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – that allow social media sites to not be responsible for what users post.
“If they were responsible – and could be sued in the same way a newspaper can be sued for printing fake information – I could imagine a quick change in how quickly social media sites are able to check user content,” he noted.
“Until social media algorithms can be regulated, we will continue to see them divide not only the dinner table, but the country,” added York. “In 2022, we’ll see the same level of toxic energy on social media, but reaching more channels. Look for more politically leaning platforms to emerge, like Donald Trump’s new platform, Truth Social.”
While the experts agreed that regulation is coming, it likely won’t be next year.
“When Facebook spends tens of millions on lobbying each year, and when congress doesn’t fully understand social media and algorithms, don’t expect change to act quickly. Remember, this happened in 2021,” said York. “A future generation will look back at this time and think we were all out of our minds for not regulating social media quicker, just like my generation wonders how big tobacco wasn’t punished for half a century.”