Bi-Partisan Bias: The Impact of Social Media on American Political Polarization

By Jessica Chambers, MPC2014

Photo Credit - Michael Vadon and Gage Skidmore
Photo Credit – Michael Vadon and Gage Skidmore

The 2016 Presidential Election was the most negative, controversial, and stressful election in recent memory – if not in US history. While Canadians are not usually affected by American domestic policy, our neighbour’s foreign policy decisions often influence Canadians indirectly. Like many other Canadians, I personally thought Hillary Clinton was the best candidate. However, it appears that President-elect Donald Trump’s vague rhetoric to “bring back jobs” and “make America great again” resonated deeply with the rural communities contained in his 306 electoral college votes.

A growing problem: politically charged social media echo chambers

There has always been a disconnect between rural and urban voters, however scholars believed that the expansion of the internet and social media would bring a wealth of information to remote communities. However, over the past 10 years, Facebook has developed an algorithm that curates the news feed for their users. This algorithm has become so sophisticated that it’s now tailoring political news to be consistent with a user’s pre-existing opinions.

Facebook reportedly tried to update their news feed algorithm earlier this year to reduce fake news stories and “click bait,” but later discovered that those modifications would have systematically excluded right-wing news content. After heated internal discussions, Facebook’s management ultimately decided that the changes should not move forward, as they “might compromise the perception of [Facebook’s] objectivity.”

Facebook’s algorithm presents an interesting dilemma – does Facebook have a moral obligation to provide their users with multiple perspectives? Should social media platforms introduce human content creators to combat news polarization? I personally don’t trust a corporation to wield that power responsibly. However, many Democrats have argued Facebook does have that obligation – and recently blamed Facebook’s algorithm for the party’s election loss.

The same algorithm that presented right-wing news to Republicans also presented left-wing news to Democrats. For example, searches for “Hillary Clinton” during the election presented Democrats with Hillary’s statements against sexism, but presented Republicans with articles suggesting Hillary was days away from being indicted for using her private email server.

This might explain why Democrats were so blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory. The news that Democrats were exposed to every day made it appear that Trump had no reasonable chance for success.

Regardless of your political beliefs – the discussion about Facebook’s news feed algorithm will likely continue into 2017 as Facebook’s American user penetration increases. Facebook has the potential to drive less politically engaged Americans to become even more disillusioned, and disconnect urban and rural communities even further.