Referring Teacher: Mrs. McRae
Grace Christian Academy, Bainbridge GA
Hello, my name is Mary W and I am currently a junior in highschool at Grace Christian Academy in Bainbidge, Georgia. I am a very active student, as I participate in many clubs at my school, such as Interact, Student Government, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I also play four sports, including volleyball, basketball, track, and tennis, with volleyball being my favorite. During all of these activities, I maintain a 4.0 GPA and take classes of the highest rigor my school has to offer, along with dual enrollment classes at ABAC in Bainbridge.
I have always enjoyed writing and consider it to be something that comes very natural to me. I was very excited to enter my essay for Coder Merlin, and look forward to more contests in the future. I am very thankful for my teacher, Mrs. McRae, who always encourages me and pushes me to do my best and exceed expectations. Thanks to Coder Merlin, I am excited to further my writing skills and grow!
The Effects of Social Media Within Society: Polarization vs. Unification
“We continue to have this illusion that things outside of us aren't driving what we think and believe, when in fact so much of what we spend our attention on is driven by decisions of thousands of engineers and product designers” (BrainyQuote). This quote by Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, pinpoints a significant, widespread issue within our society: the manipulation of our attention by tech and media industries that has led to a much bigger concern, the increase of polarization. Polarization is “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions” (Dictionary.com). The tactics and strategies of social media that lure millions of people to interact online, create opportunities for polarization to rapidly grow as a result of the push for confirmation bias. Due to echo chambers, propaganda, and influencers, social media has aided in the spread of polarization.
An echo chamber is an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, thus their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered. “Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics” (Digital Media Literacy). Social media, in particular, has a distinct type of echo chamber known as a filter bubble. “Filter bubbles are created by algorithms that keep track of what you click on. Websites will then use those algorithms to primarily show you content that’s similar to what you’ve already expressed interest in” (Digital Media Literacy). As a result, the constant exposure to ideas and opinions that one may already agree with simply amplifies their confirmation bias. It is because of this filtered information that people are more apt to become polarized, not only due to their echo chambers but also because of the slight, occasional display of beliefs that are located on the opposite end of the spectrum. This exposure leads to reassurance that one has the “right” beliefs over another and therefore widens the gap. Tristan Harris provides a simple, concise explanation of this, saying, “Information that confirms our beliefs makes us feel good; information that challenges our beliefs doesn't” (BrainyQuote). Social media also takes advantage of propaganda to take polarization a step further.
Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. Because social media can reach millions of people with ease, already encompassing approximately 3.5 billion users worldwide, it is a powerful tool for propaganda. Even more alarming is the fact that social media personalizes the feed of each user, with the help of algorithms, that display propaganda to intentionally edge the user closer to a one-sided view. As a matter of fact, social media apps like Instagram now inform and encourage their users to manage how their ads are personalized. Users can therefore make everything they view on their feed perfectly align with the opinions and beliefs that they agree with, thus making polarization within the media so simple and discreet. Because propaganda can be hidden within ads based on personal information, it can be very difficult to identify, as explained by Renee Hobbs: The way such biases are recognized (or not recognized) is dependent on the consumer and interpreter of the media. While one person might consider it propaganda, another might consider it entertainment or information. This is why propaganda is so confusing and has the power to be so harmful (TheDaily).
In social media, propaganda substantially leads to political polarization, which can be observed through one of the Pew Research Center’s largest political surveys: It finds that Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Growing numbers of Republicans and Democrats express highly negative views of the opposing party. And to a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left. Because of social media’s simple, effective tactics that target propaganda at people whose beliefs are already aimed towards one end of the political spectrum, it is very easy for polarization to take effect among thousands of online users. Along with propaganda, social media takes advantage of influencers that help spread polarization as well.
Influencers are typically at the core of social media networks, thus they are connected to nearly everyone and hold a position of power over their followers. If key social media influencers show any partisan bias, they have the ability to further intensify the opinions of those who support them, especially those with a large follower base. Furthermore, in centralized networks like social media platforms, beliefs or viewpoints are sifted through and often impeded by powerful influencers. Evidence of this can be seen in an explanation from the Scientific American: The problem of partisan bias is exacerbated on social media because online networks are often organized around a few key influencers… in centralized networks, biased influencers have a disproportionate impact on their community—enabling small rumors and suppositions to become amplified into widespread misconceptions and false beliefs. As a result, not only does partisan bias become a factor that leads to polarization, but also the spread of certain beliefs or misinformation that can form division between social media users.
An even greater issue, however, is the fact that this division does not remain only online, but rather seeps into one’s personal daily lifestyle and interactions with others. Contrary to the fact that social media helps the spread of polarization, there are reasons as to why it does just the opposite.
Social media has decreased the spread of polarization due to the ability to create unification and a sense of community throughout the world all within one source. Egalitarian groups, for example, are where people believe that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. This type of group, contrary to an echo chamber, is where everyone can voice new ideas or opinions from anywhere in the community. The key component of this group is the fact that thoughts and views spread equally among everyone and are not used to target particular groups of people. This creates more moderate viewpoints rather than extreme opinions that spur from filtered information. Social media also allows its users to connect and communicate with their family and friends without any hindrance, as well as the opportunity to meet new people.
Being able to connect with anyone across the globe is one of technology’s greatest achievements, especially for social media users who want to remain connected to their family and friends. This connection helps keep relationships strong and ongoing, whereas distance would typically be difficult to overcome. According to Technologyformidfulness.com: Social media helps people strengthen their relationships, create new connections, and find social support in tough times. Nowadays, most of us use social media to keep in contact with friends and family. One study found that 93% of adults use Facebook to connect with family while 91% with friends. And everyone knows how great social media is at allowing us to stay (or get back) in contact with old friends, with 87% reporting they use social for that very reason. According to one study, 81% of teens ages 13-17 say that social media makes them feel more connected to the people in their life, while 68% say using it makes them feel supported during tough times. And yet another study found that 57% of teens say they’ve made new lasting friendships online.
As a result of these studies, it is clear that maintaining relationships, as well as fostering new ones, is a positive factor that social media provides for everyone. This ability to form relationships through social media can also be very beneficial to those who struggle with social anxiety or have an introverted nature: More than 25% of teens report social media making them feel less shy and 28% more outgoing. In addition to that, 20% reported feeling more confident as a result of their interactions on social media. Teens who label themselves as “less socially adept” say that social media makes it easier for them to make friends. Likewise, adults similarly report feeling that social media is a comfortable place for social interaction (Valentine).
Social media has been especially important in regard to these relationships due to the millions of people who have had to stay home as a result of COVID-19, restricting them from coming into contact with loved ones or close friends. As a result of some of technology’s biggest social media platforms, people have been able to continue their typical, daily activities from the comfort and safety of their home, like participating in school, work, and communication with family and friends. Despite the negative aspects of polarization within social media, there are many pros that aid in promoting unity within society. Polarization has increased significantly in the last decade as a result of social media's strategic use of echo chambers, propaganda, and influencers. These tactics ultimately target and promote confirmation bias, which can lead to the increased division between people with opposing views. As explained by The Social Dilemma: We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented...overtime, you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you, because everyone in your newsfeed sounds just like you, and that once you’re in that state, it turns out you’re easily manipulated the same way you would be manipulated by a magician. Social media does, however, contain communities that support the equal spread of ideas without algorithms or personalized information, fighting against the powerful echo chambers that social media takes advantage of. Global communication and connection as a result of social media also provides opportunities for people to strengthen, maintain, or create new relationships with others. Big social media platforms also make it easy to continue daily activities from the safety of one’s home, which is very important during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Because social media creates opportunities for division through polarization, it is imperative as stewards of our world and the well-being of the human race to step up, develop, and organize solutions that promote unity within our society. It is also significant to recognize the benefits that social media offers to everyone, with constant advances and growth to support the communities of its users worldwide with goals of cultivating unity.
- Centola, Damon. “Why Social Media Makes Us More Polarized and How to Fix It.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 15 Oct. 2020, www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-social-media-makes-us-more-polarized-and-ho w-to-fix-it/.
- “Digital Media Literacy: What Is an Echo Chamber?”GCFGlobal.org, https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/digital-media-literacy/what-is-an-echo-chamber/1/.
- “Polarization.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/polarization.
- “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 28 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.
- “The Social Dilemma.” Netflix Official Site, 9 Sept. 2020, www.netflix.com/title/81254224. “Tristan Harris Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/authors/tristan-harris-quotes.
- Valentine, Matthew. “5 Reasons Why Social Media Is Good for Us.” Technology for Mindfulness, 6 Apr. 2020, technologyformindfulness.com/positives-of-social-media/. Writer, Clara Yardley Contributing, and Courtesy of Emile Pitre. “Propaganda: The Cause and the Cure of Polarization?” The Daily of the University of Washington, 4 Dec. 2018, www.dailyuw.com/news/article_d389083e-f798-11e8-85db-c33a83a323f2.html.