COMMENTARY: Internet plays role in current societal polarization

Strongly-opinionated people have always clashed over what they believed was best for society. Yet, there always seemed to be a code of common decency and respect for those with opposing views. In contrast, this day and age has felt especially polarizing and divisive with it being compared to the likes of the Civil War. Some have attributed this divide to the rise of social media, which allows for the formation of echo-chambers consisting of like-minded people. Case in point, the rise of the alt-Right, which was seen as a product of the citizens' festering belief that the government no longer had its best interests in mind. In fact, it was this sense of mistrust in the bureaucratic process that ended up being a large factor in the election of President Donald J. Trump, who was viewed as the “outsider” or “people’s president.” Although, radically-conservative beliefs do not instill themselves overnight, or even over the course of the year-and-a-half 2016 presidential campaign. They are passed down from generation to generation and/or shaped by one’s life experiences as well as by who one surrounds oneself with. 

This is where the role of social media comes into focus, as it is its primary purpose that also serves as a tool of divisiveness and further polarization. Online networks such as Facebook and Twitter allow individuals from across the globe to connect virtually, share ideas and meet like-minded people. But, this can lead to isolation of thought and strong resistance to opposing opinions. These mediums serve as platforms for people of similar political views to connect and discuss as well as endow the ability to shut out those who express differing views with the click of a button. This is a dangerous combination for a few reasons. For one, individuals who began as moderate can be easily influenced into becoming more radicalized through group-mentality — the belief that people can be swayed to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis when in a group. In addition, it results in the perpetuation of so-called “fake news” circulation because as long as there are individuals who continue to click on unverified news organizations, these types of falsified sources will continue to generate ad revenue and thus remain in business. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it allows individuals to pass these unsubstantiated claims on and increase the circulation of these fraudulent stories.

In fact, even search engine softwares have an innate bias built-in, as every search made results in an adjustment in weights within the database. Take, for instance, a search of the country Egypt. If Participant A had no previous searches related to political topics, then a search of “Egypt” would perhaps result in vacation destinations or lists of tourist spots. In contrast, if Participant B had previously clicked on various sensationalized article titles written by unknown and often fictitious news sources that were more often than not completely made-up, then a search of “Egypt” would result in false articles ranking higher on the search, further isolating Participant B from reputable news sources. The purpose of each engine algorithm is simple: efficiency. Its sole purpose is to ascertain as much information as possible from the links one clicks on when searching online and make sure that everything similar to that gets pushed to the top of the search results.

So, who is responsible? Is it the burden of technology companies to regulate and monitor their networks and remove all ads pertaining to fictitious stories, as well as ban accounts that appear to be spreading fake news? In the modern age of technology and social media, these types of regulations within the company could be constituted within corporate social responsibility (CSR), akin to companies organizing community clean-ups and donating to charities. Or, is it the responsibility of the government to pass stricter legislation that holds technology giants to higher ethical standards? The bureaucratic road is very often a long one, as any type of restriction would immediately be seen as an infringement on the First Amendment. It is not solely the responsibility of our government or our technology companies to protect us from falsified data and radical individuals on the internet, though. It is our obligation to be vigilant and maintain active lines of communication. Many of us fall prey to the belief that we are morally superior to those who appear to be fanatic alt-Right supporters and dismiss them on sight. That is when it is most important for both sides to set apart their differences and start a conversation.

Aarti Badami is a Rutgers Business School sophomore.

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