Social media is an increasingly prominent and now virtually necessary aspect of modern life.
With 2.23 billion active members and social media sites still growing, the phenomenon has become an ingrained part of western culture in no time at all. In fact, around 60% of all people in the UK are exposed to social media in one form or another. Of course, to any political organisation, this is a huge target for advertising. Even more so due to the fact that social media is currently not adequately regulated.
However, while many political groups will advertise within reasonable scope of the law, social media itself could be the catalyst for democracy eroding.
Users on Twitter and Facebook will usually follow and like any accounts they feel personally aligned with, including politically. This is how the vast majority of people use social media, and, individually, it’s fine. But on a larger scale, it leads to the creation of echo chambers.
A study by Aalto University found that a large proportion of the population tweet in a partisan manner, and that users tend to follow and retweet any statements and accounts that they find themselves on the side of. This ultimately means that communities of sympathising voices form, which acts only to strengthen the prevailing opinions in these groups.
The study also found that there is a “price of bipartisanship”, meaning that anyone who tends to tweet and read content from both sides of a political divide will be essentially cast out by both communities. Users such as these will receive significantly fewer retweets and followers, acting as almost a disincentive to users reading and finding general agreement with both sides, and therefore damaging the possibility of compromise.
In what could be seen as a two-party state, with the Conservatives and the Labour Party sharing more than 80% of the vote in 2017, these clear communities tend to build hostility towards each other due mostly to the fact that they are exposed to predominantly negative news about those on the other side of the political divide. This is only worsened by the recent trend towards online articles being highly partisan, with the Independent taking a clear stance in favour of Labour, and the Sun fully supporting the Conservative Party in the lead up to the 2017 General Election.
In party politics, these clear divisions are at least somewhat softened by the presence of a spectrum of parties, and thus a selection of political groups to choose from. People are far more able to find a middle ground when there are more central parties (such as the Liberal Democrats) to choose from, or if they see flaws in any of the parties’ policies. There are always alternative options that may only slightly vary.
However, in the case of referenda, these options are not available. A referendum is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote, and therefore these two communities will inevitably grow, building up staunch opposition to the other side. And as the two stances are so directly opposed, tensions and disdain between the two camps will only increase until the vote comes.
Severe divides between sides of the political debate can only have negative impacts. In a political landscape where the main issue transcends party politics, with Brexiteers and Remainers within the majority of parties (except perhaps Ukip), there needs to be a level of compromise between these groups to ensure the best solution. Yet social media is only acting to widen these divisions.
However, these are changes that need to be made on a larger scale, as an individual acting within a group of millions is going to have little potency.
The best thing that we as individuals can do is broaden our horizons online, read the opinions of the other side to expand our point of view, and do our best to empathise with our opposition. The only thing that comes from one-sided perspectives is a lack of understanding, that has recently proven to be dangerous and corrosive to our democracy.