October 22nd 2019. For many in Northern Ireland, it was a day of liberation and celebration. For others, it was their country’s #DarkestDay. I’m sure for others, it was somewhere in between.
I’m not here to comment on the laws that passed, but the discussion that they provoked which I found gravely concerning.
Before we delve headfirst into the issue, a quick case study: The United States of America. An increasingly polarised nation, with large swathes of the country being tarred ‘Red’ or ‘Blue’ based on their two-party system, which essentially limits the electorate to 2 choices come election day. From visiting the country in both staunchly Republican and Democratic areas, the ideological disparity is plain to see. I could bore you with my ‘Gap Yah’ enlightenment chat but consider this example:
When at an extended family gathering, Northern Irish politics came up in conversation. Being fairly anomalous in that I was raised non-religiously by parents from both sides of our own country’s divide, relatives curiously and kindly picked my brains on various issues. But when American politics came up, I was genuinely taken aback about how deeply divided a nation it is, even in comparison to Northern Ireland. Before I lose you here, let me tell you this: Not one of them was good friends with, worked with, or was related to someone who voted against the traditional party of their state. I tell a lie – one’s sister was married to a guy with differing political opinions, but he was “quite weird”. These are the most welcoming, loving people and non-judgemental people you could ever be lucky enough to meet, they just happened to be operating in a politically uniform community.
Back to Northern Ireland, 22nd October 2019. Some celebrated the passing of same-sex marriage and abortion decriminalisation laws with statuses including rainbow and smiley-face emojis, whilst many others showed their disagreement by changing their profile pictures to a black square with #DarkestDay. Search this hashtag on Twitter and among these typical updates, you’ll find a worrying trend.
Of course, these people are free to follow and friend whomever they wish, but it begs the question: are we becoming polarised?
Jon Ronson published ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ in 2015. The book posits the idea that we are living in “a great renaissance of public shaming” in which “we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain.” Scroll down your newsfeed for less than 2 minutes and you’ll find a comment thread that proves this.
Even seemingly innocuous breakfast TV shows exploit this trend. This Morning (1.4M YouTube subscribers) and Good Morning Britain (478K YouTube subscribers) boast millions on views on their most popular videos, which often consist of debates on controversial topics (or increasingly, topics made controversial) between guests of 2 polar opposite opinions. Hundreds of YouTube videos following the clickbait title trope of ‘X ideologist owns Y ideologist’ or ‘Z viewpoint shut down’ boast viewership in the millions. With click-based revenue systems, arguments play the game perfectly, bypassing any reasoned discussion. Is it any wonder our own discussions are starting to follow suit?
Some of this social media shaming culture can arguably produce positive change, such as accounts like @DietPrada calling out multi-national fashion houses for copycatting smaller brands for profit or football fans that have posted racist videos being banned from future games by their club.
Even if we consciously choose to avoid polarising media pieces, Facebook is still in the business of social segmentation. By engaging with content that interests us, even viewing a video in your timeline, Facebook classifies you by a whole range of criteria from your shopping and sports interests to your political affiliations (head to facebook.com/ads/preferences and click on ‘Your preferences’ to see your own algorithm-imposed social media bubble). Therefore, your newsfeed is tailored to bring you information suited to these interests, filtering out content that isn’t.
This algorithm has been exploited by political PR professionals, such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to target specific groups with messaging tailored to suit their particular biases on a minute level, while hiding other issues that would cause them to rethink their voting choices. Whilst the same headline news would get through to the vast majority of people, the way the events were portrayed to whole sections of the community would be vastly different – so when we unfriend people of differing viewpoints, we only make our own social media bubble more unpoppable.
There is a glimmer of light however, as media outlets facilitating more nuanced and purposefully bias-free content are gaining traction as a result of the current media climate. A personal favourite of mine is Jubilee, a YouTube channel aiming to “make thought-provoking, real and empathetic videos to create a movement for human good”. Ran by young creatives in California, their Middle Ground series finds commonalities between those with opposing views on controversial issues and their Spectrum series find differing views between pigeon-holed people groups (atheists, plus sized people, veterans etc), among other binge-worthy videos.
So when you see a mate publish a viewpoint that is completely different from yours, roll your eyes as hard as you want, but wait a minute before you unfriend them – they may well be the only unique contribution to your newsfeed.
Georgia Galway is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on: Instagram @imthatgalwaygirl – and LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/georgia-galway-24a568153/.