Digital Bubbles

Digital Bubbles

How social media affects our politics

January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi

Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.

Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.


A polarisation of ideas

As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.

One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.

Diagram by Washington Post

However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.

This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.


Social networks & algorithms

The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.

This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.

Diagram by Dennis Jenders

Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.

Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.


Reinforcement thinking

For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.

My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.

Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.

Photograph by Dominick Reuter

Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?

Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.

They may have seen, for example, an article about alleged sex crimes perpetrated by asylum applicants in Germany during New Year’s Eve, or another article showing ISIS terrorists infiltrating refugee flows and then carrying out attacks in Europe.

The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.


Profit-driven sensationalism

Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.

Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.

Article from Daily Mail

A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.

Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.

The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.


United in diversity

The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.

While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.

There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

US Elections 2016

Donald Trump elected President of the United States

The pitiful state of American politics and society

November 12th 2016 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward & Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by CNN

In the early morning hours of November 9th, Donald Trump secured the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

You might ask yourself – how is this possible? How did a candidate who was widely regarded as a dangerous joke by the media, the establishment, and even among his own party members, clinch the highest office in the country?

Previously, we analysed Bernie Sanders’s progressive movement, the Republican party’s disastrous agenda, the Bernie or Bust dilemma, and Hillary Clinton’s deeply flawed candidacy. Now, we turn our attention to the reality of this result and its unsettling consequences.


Make America Great… Again?

When this country was founded, it was founded on the basis of freedom and equality for all. That idea is what made America “great”.

Yet, at that time, black Americans were kept as property, and women were seen as second-class citizens. America was not great, and America still is not great. The ideas espoused by the American constitution are valuable, but the nation itself still has a lot progress to make in the 21st century.

Photograph from Obergefell v. Hodges

Depending on your race, social class, and identity, there’s a good chance America is a place where you live in constant fear of being harassed, assaulted, and even killed.

Now, being faced with the results of the election, there’s a fear amongst these groups of marginalized Americans that their very livelihood is in danger. That fear is legitimate.

Donald Trump, a reality television star, real estate mogul and President-elect, paints a picture of America in which we see our friends and loved ones being hurt just because of their background or identity. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care about you or anyone else.


A Democratic failure

Trump’s opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton, was the biggest mistake in Democratic history.

When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) colluded with Clinton to manipulate the primaries against a widely supported progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, it became instantly clear that this would lead to an inevitable Trump presidency.

Sanders’s supporters were already suspicious of her anti-democratic behaviour during primary season, but when Wikileaks released dozens of DNC e-mails in support of those claims, it was the last nail in the coffin. As a result of this monumental mistake, dangerous populism triumphed over corrupt liberalism.

Another dimension to the Democratic party’s failure is that they backed an establishment candidate during an election cycle where anti-establishment politics were spectacularly popular.

Hillary Clinton is a lifelong politician who personifies the epitome of American establishment politics. She speaks loudly and carries a small stick, so to say. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “she’s never met a foreign donor she doesn’t like”. The public distrusted Clinton from the very beginning for her past decision-making, both as Secretary of State and Senator.

Photograph by Bloomberg

In fact, Bernie Sanders issued this exact warning in August 2015, when he addressed the Democratic party and told them that her campaign could not possibly win the election:

“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.

With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful. The people of our country understand that — given the collapse of the American middle class and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing — we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.

We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which represents all Americans, and not just corporate America and wealthy campaign donors. In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”

Although it may also reflect a general distrust for politicians, mostly because people are told they have many reasons to be angry, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are not illegitimate.

However, when given the choice between a Clinton or Trump presidency, there is no doubt that she was the correct choice, or at the least the most acceptable choice to the reasonable voter.


The pitiful state of America

This election is telling of the state of the American mindset.

In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and islamophobia, half the country managed to believe that Trump wasn’t merely touting those issues as speaking points to get elected. We were wrong, and we will have to live with that decision for the rest of our days.

What Trump did was mobilize a group of non-voters. Americans who felt so far separated from politics that they would vote for any candidate who represents radical change. Trump’s running mate and Vice President to be, Mike Pence, the gay-bashing theocrat and friend of the Falwells, is really the cherry on top. In fact, he supports such a backwards agenda, that he and his wife have even funded gay conversion therapy.

Photograph by Michael Henninger

Considering that when John Kasich met with Eric Trump, Eric assured him that the Vice President would be making all real policy decisions, Pence will likely be the puppeteer pulling the strings. When Kasich asked what Donald Trump’s role would be, he simply replied “making America great again”.

Trump’s supporters, mostly uneducated white people, were energized by his charisma, can-do attitude, and general disregard for the rules. “He speaks his mind,” says the Trump supporter. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not his raucous incoherence is based in fact or fiction. It also does not matter whether or not Trump has foreign policy experience, whether he understands the intricacies of macroeconomics, or even if he’ll actually fight for them.

They simply heard an echo of their own bigotry. An echo chamber of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are inherently better, while ignoring any of our own faults.

With Trump comes an era where the truth literally does not matter anymore. Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. Rhetoric rules supreme.


Toxic consequences

The most immediate effects of a Trump presidency, coupled with an entirely Republican-held Congress, will be the complete unravelling of President Obama’s progressive policies, to be replaced with the GOP’s toxic agenda.

Republicans now effectively control all three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary). What can we expect from them?

Environment: support for fossil fuels, legislation against renewable subsidies, and rejection of the Paris climate change agreement – leading to faster environmental destruction than ever before.

Supreme Court: with a vacant seat already left from Republican obstructionism against Obama’s nomination, Donald Trump could potentially appoint 2-3 new conservative justices – leading to the overruling of many important principles like gay marriage.

Economy and society: regressive policies against almost everyone in society, including the repeal of Obamacare – leading to continued rapid decline of the middle class.

Geopolitics: Trump’s unusual cooperation with Russia and scepticism towards NATO is likely to destabilise the western alliance and endanger the future of peace and defence in Europe, especially on the Eastern front.

Photograph by Les Stone

Perhaps what matters even more is that Trump’s hateful ideology has now received national recognition, it has been given a voice on the highest of podiums. This sort of bigotry is what first shocked people about Trump, but no one took it seriously until it was too late, and soon it will be represented by the White House itself.

Even Trump’s braggadocious remarks of sexually assaulting women were not enough to unseat him. This is who we have elected, a man who brags of assaulting women and gets away with it. It was written off as “locker room banter”, but really it is an absolute slap in the face to the millions of survivors of sexual violence in our country.

Since the announcement of his candidacy and the publication of his views, we’ve seen an unfortunate rise in hate crime. Videos have emerged showing Confederate flag-flying Americans berating immigrants and minorities with racial slurs and threats of violence. Muslims being beaten and harassed in a country which holds freedom of religion as one of its most fundamental tenants. This is a farce.


Progress is the future

We’ve seen the danger of allowing hateful rhetoric to rule a country’s policy-making. Open a history book and you’ll find a litany of regimes which were all birthed from a single idea: “make this country greater than the rest”.

We need to examine what a “great” country actually is. Trump does not want greatness for America, he wants dominance, and he wants to be at the head of this movement.

A “great” America under Trump is a global hegemon who rules with an iron fist. It is a fearless leader who charges head-first into battle and emerges victorious, regardless of the cost. This is an image out of a tall tale, this is not the reality of the world we live in.

For a country to be great it does not need to be a domineering world power, but rather a global team player that values the lives of all and actively tries to make the world safer for everyone. The race to be the number one world super power is a dangerous and frightful game, and what goes up must come down.

In the face of adversity, Americans have only one option: to unify and hold one another up. Donald Trump will not make this country great, but its people can.

US Election 2016

Bernie Sanders pulls Clinton towards progressive politics

The Presidential candidate from Vermont who represents the people

June 23rd 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Getty Images

When President Barack Obama first made his ascension to the highest office in the United States, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of American adults to see what word was most commonly associated with the president. The second most reported word was a ‘bad’ one: socialist.

To Americans, “socialist” is an unbelievably dirty word, a slur of sorts that can greatly ruin a potential political candidate’s chances of success. It is for this reason that the current popularity of Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, is all the more surprising.


Progressive politics

Unlike President Obama, who was only called a socialist by his detractors, Senator Sanders actually describes himself with that label. He has championed the Scandinavian system of governance for decades, calling for higher tax rates, a single-payer healthcare system, free college education, increased wages, equal pay for women, stronger unions, campaign finance reform, and the expansion of social services among a litany of other leftist policies.

Friday night, appearing on Bill Maher’s show Real Time, Bernie Sanders said “It’s a very radical idea: we’re going to tell the truth. The truth is that, for forty years, the middle class of this country has been disappearing. And there has been a huge transfer of billions of dollars of working families to the top one-tenth of one percent. And what the people of this country are saying is: enough is enough, our government, our country, belongs to all of us, not just a few billionaires.”

His progressive style of politics recently became a tremendous selling point for him, allowing him to gain the support of millions of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30. Recently, Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that Mr. Sanders is currently supported by 22% of Democrats within that age bracket, beaten only by the heavily favoured Hillary Clinton.

Photograph by Oliver Parini

This may ultimately be his greatest hurdle, however, as the Democratic Party’s constituency extends far beyond the mostly white and affluent young adults who support Sanders. Clinton, who recently began to liberalise her social stances and highlight the plight of minorities within the party, is already seeing the fruits of such decisions as she currently polls at around 63% overall support rate according to PPP. Sanders, on the other hand, comes in second at a distant 13% overall.

The odds of Senator Sanders overcoming Clinton’s staggering popularity are slim, to say the least. Yet, given the nature of primaries, it is likely that his progressive views will have a wider and more important effect on US politics than his actual candidacy.

Most candidates for the Democratic nomination will be trying to play catch-up with Mr. Sanders, as his take on political issues, ranging from economics to the environment and social concerns, are more progressive than any other mainstream US politician today.


Changing the game 

On Friday, during Real Time, Bill Maher spoke in favour of Sanders for president, stating that he has “Hillary talking like Elizabeth Warren”. Indeed, Bernie Sanders could behoove Clinton to adopt many aspects of his economic philosophy as quickly as possible, as concerns of economic fairness and class mobility become central to the Democratic Party’s success in upcoming elections.

While the full scope of what his campaign will do to the American political sphere is yet to be seen, some of his ideas are already manifesting themselves in these fledgling campaigns. According to the Washington Post, Mrs. Clinton recently informed her top fundraisers that, if elected president, “all of her nominees to the Supreme Court will have to share her belief that the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision must be overturned”.

The case to which she is referring, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, infamously established that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a corporation. And whilst Clinton’s stance was widely acclaimed by supporters, Senator Sanders had already made the same proclamation several days earlier.

Photograph by Jonathan Ernst

“If elected president, I will have a litmus test in terms of my nominee to be a Supreme Court justice,” Sanders said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 10th. “And that nominee will say that we are all going to overturn this disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, because that decision is undermining American democracy. I do not believe that billionaires should be able to buy politicians.”

This was merely the latest in a continuing line of mimicry issued by Clinton’s campaign. On May 7th, after a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency (NSA)’s collection of bulk call data was illegal and unauthorised under the Patriot Act, candidates sprung into action.

Clinton, who actually voted twice in favour of the Patriot Act during her time in Senate, tweeted that “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act — a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties,” before signing off with the letter “H” to indicate that she had authored the message herself.

This tweet, however, came just under six hours after Bernie Sanders had tweeted his own stance on the matter: “in my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner”.


Towards election night 

Senator Sanders’ ability to make his opponents conform to his beliefs will be a tremendous game changer throughout the Democratic primaries. Having the opportunity to have his progressive views espoused on a national scale, by even more high profile and mainstream politicians than himself, could potentially allow socialism to finally drag itself out of the dregs of American political rhetoric.

Although he still has a great deal of ground to make up, Bernie Sanders is becoming more and more of a threat to Clinton’s campaign as the days go by. After a narrow defeat in a straw poll conducted by the Wisconsin Democratic Convention (the importance of which is disputed by some), Senator Sanders has started to etch fear into his opponents. His tremendous turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states hosting the first two primaries, will likely “cause the Clinton campaign to take Sanders seriously”, according to Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

It will still be an uphill battle for Bernie Sanders, but regardless of whether he ultimately wins the nomination or not, he is sure to be a substantial progressive force in 2016 and in the future of US politics.