In 2006, I was sitting front row at the Harvard Insitute of Politics where Stephen Colbert was speaking.
The day was memorable.
Colbert was super intelligent and incredibly witty. He filmed a segment for his show in front of us, and yours truly made it onto this episode of the show (find a close-up of Soakin’ Scott at 5:22). I hadn’t gone full hot-tub enthusiast at this point, but the seed had been planted. The day was also memorable because there was this annoying guy sitting next to me, wearing all denim, who wouldn’t stop asking me questions. I told someone after the event of how annoying he was and found out afterwards that it was Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. I was really polite about it so Dean, if you’r reading, build me a hot tub.
During the Q&A portion of the forum, someone asked Colbert about why he thought his Bill O’Reilly-esque persona played so well to audiences and also, why right wing hosts in general seem to do well on mediums like conservative talk-radio. Colbert pointed out that these types of extreme personalities are optimal for entertainment. They evoke reactions, emotions, and feedback from listeners. These things drive ratings.
10 years later, this has never been more true.
Kayne West, Stephen A. Smith, Sarah Palin, Sean Penn, Kim Kardashian, Tim Tebow, Rush Limbaugh, and Al Sharpton all come to mind as polarizing figures. It makes sense that people have strong opinions about these people because they tend to offer one of two sides. This makes choosing (and debating) easy, and we humans like to think in terms of absolutes. These people personify values and ideas. Kim Kardashian personifies decadence and wealth. If you value humility, you won’t like Kimmy K. Tim Tebow personifies Christianity. If you’re an atheist or don’t like religion in your face, you’re probably not rooting too hard for Tebow. These people are probably far more nuanced than we realize, but the way they are portrayed or portray themselves, represents something very specific. These figures and talking-points polarize people, and this translates to ratings and money. And because they translate to ratings and money, we see more and more of them on television, magazines, and social media.
So how is this any different than years past?
Celebrities and strong political voices have always been an interest to the public. But two things are especially unique in this time in history. The first thing is that we reward and incentivize polarizing behavior and ‘hot takes.’ You get more Instagram followers, you get more air-time, and you get on more magazine covers. People can literally make a huge living being notorious. The second thing–and this is the most important–is that the dialogue concerning these people and what they stand for are constant talking-points on social media. And unlike a time like the 1960s for example, social media permeates our lives like never before.
Literally, it didn’t exist before.
50 years ago, our sources for news were limited. People had access to these limited avenues and were fed–what I imagine–similar story-lines and ideas. Today, 63% of Twitter and Facebook users get their news from social media. That’s about 63% people of everyone considering my mom, aunts, and uncles are all using either Facebook or Twitter now. The internet is an abyss of crap–some good, some bad–and it’s all quite terrible if the masses are getting news here. I believe it’s terrible for a few reasons:
The Quality of the Source(s)
I remember the Boston Bombings and how I was convinced, through Twitter and Reddit that the suspect was someone entirely different than who it really turned out to be. I won’t make that mistake ever again. Nothing on the internet truly needs to be fact-checked or corroborated. Even when it’s supposed to be, some journalist will quickly tweet a correction and poof, no real consequences. It’s all about how fast you get the story out. In terms of Facebook, the source(s) can come from anywhere. It can be some nut job with a hot tub blog or some left-wing conspiracy theorist. The fact that people can literally pay money to have their story or news outlet seen more by people is troubling. And while we may think (myself included) that we can differentiate crap from real news, we often don’t know consciously how it’s affecting our perceptions. The pure quantity of a story can leave lasting impressions on us. Take the Duke lacrosse case as an example. Those kids were absolutely railroaded in the media and I am absolutely guilty of letting that story confirm all my biases towards white, entitled athletes.
When People Consciously and Unconsciously Filter Their News
If you’re like me, you’ve unfollowed or unfriended a few people on social media. Maybe it was your racist uncle or maybe it was someone you went to high school with who suddenly found Jesus. The point is that most people filter out (or Facebook does it for them with their algorithm) what messages they receive on their newsfeed. What happens when you engage in this filtering is you create a flow of like-minded statuses, ideas, and news. Your “friends” on social media then become an extension of your own beliefs. It follows that these ideas and beliefs become more and more validated by your like-minded peers.
So what is the result of all of this?
I think that these components of social media contribute to the polarization we see today. Crazy right-wing fanatics follow other crazy right-wing fanatics. Crazy liberals search for evidence (credible or not) that perfectly supports their views. This behavior fuels polarization. Besides the scary fact that people are literally silencing opposing viewpoints, what is more troubling to me is that objective evidence has been replaced by easy-to-click memes and colorful bar graphs. In many ways it’s like the food problem in the US. We can be highly educated about food and how it’s made, but if 80% of our grocery stores are lined with unhealthy options, what does the average person do? If people are truly getting most of their news information from social media, and 80% of it is absolute garbage, how informed are people going to be?
I’ve thought about the HUGE importance for individuals to navigate through credible information for a long time. Horrible events like the one in Orlando reveal the blatant polarization of our country. I find it interesting, and sad, that it seems to be either an issue of guns or an issue of radical Islam. I don’t see many people saying that maybe, just maybe, it’s a combination of both.
I guess it’s just easier to pick a team.