Biased online media drives polarization

Today, more than ever before, information is available to the consumer in ways seemingly unthinkable merely a decade before. With smartphones and tablets in the hands of millions of Americans, nearly all of the information compiled thus far by mankind is but a few clicks away. Such access grants the average person tremendous power, as the traditional “gatekeepers” of information have seen their clout sharply diminished. Now, the consumer has the power to filter news for themselves, deciding not only what to read, but what stories to even see. While this change has done wonders in expanding the horizon of information available to ordinary people, it comes with risks, as consumers are able to essentially censor out entire perspectives that conflict with their previously held set of beliefs – a scenario that, if practiced widely enough, could threaten the very principles of our democratic form of government.

The situation above is certainly a bit of a stretch, but the impact of widespread self-selection of slanted news sources is evident in the political discourse we see today, especially with the seemingly never-ending modern election cycle. Most will agree that the two major parties are more polarized now than they have been within recent memory. Most will also agree that such polarization is not focused exclusively within the Beltway, and that it is matched at least as fervently by many base supporters on both sides of the isle. While cultural upbringing and education, among a long list of other factors, are certainly factors in the political leanings of American voters, such leanings are amplified when exposed to the echo chamber that is biased internet news media.

Far from offering true objectivity as a public service to consumers, many questionable sources simply serve to validate the preexisting notions already accepted as fact by regular readers. Nearly all media is driven by profit, which is largely derived from ad revenue created from the number of clicks a story delivers. Sites thus have a vested interest in maintaining high traffic on the stories they publish, and “clickbait” links to stories fill Facebook and Twitter feeds, attempting to pique the interest of their respective political market segment. Deepening the problem is the thought that current polarization trends are less a result of enthusiasm for one’s own side and much more based on a deep, often personal disdain for the other side, hence the tendency of polarizing online articles to focus on perceived embarrassments and scandals rather than legitimate policy debates.

By all means, one should take pride in his or her political beliefs, but getting pulled into being mad on the internet while reading a story compiled specifically to rile up and agitate readers against an opposing party is unproductive in achieving policy oriented outcomes, and simply further drives a wedge between groups that are already at odds regarding actual issues. Whether one leans to the right or to the left, it is up to the reader to determine what information to receive. The power is in the hands of the consumer, and it is only a click away.

Hunter Richey is a senior majoring in economics and political science.

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