Victims or Perpetrators? The Digital Divide of American Politics

By: Lianne Ouellette 

Edited by: Elizabeth Clarke

Over the past two decades, social media has been leveraged as a paramount tool to transform the American political landscape, closely witnessed by neighboring Canadians. Boasting a global user base exceeding 4.26 billion individuals, there is no doubt that social media has reshaped all facets of societal interaction–enhancing accessibility, connectivity and accelerating the pace of information dissemination. Manipulative media techniques have exacerbated political polarization in the U.S., turning “red” and “blue” as defining identity traits. Political affiliation has fractured national cohesion, and who is to blame? Is American politics the suffering victim of social media’s dark side, or in fact the perpetrators of American partisanship? 

Before the prevalence of social media, campaigns and debates were displayed exclusively through traditional media forms. Platforms such as newspapers, radio, and cable television held prestige in keeping their content both honest and credible. There was a large emphasis on campaign advertisements to enforce politicians’ main messages, employing techniques of demonization, stereotyping, and association. For instance, in the 2004 election, Republicans prevailed as George W. Bush. Jr presented himself with fire-fighters from 9/11, while also labeling competing Democrat John Kerry as “untrustworthy” and “unprincipled”. However, a move to social media tackles the key issues associated with traditional media: a lack of diverse opinions and increased accessibility. 

The impact of instating a digital political platform was most notable in the most controversial election in U.S. history, the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump’s triumph was accredited to his revolutionary–nontraditional–campaign, spending the majority of his budget on Facebook advertisements. More than 9 million people saw Trump’s live Facebook broadcast which lent his campaign an air of authenticity, raising $9 million in donations. Not to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal targeted 13.5 million persuadable voters in swing states while the Russian intervention leaked private information critiquing Clinton. Twitter amplified Trump’s fake news and misinformation, shared 5 times more than headlines regarding Clinton. On the other hand, Clinton’s campaign was well-polished, television quality videos which were said to lack personality and sincerity. Perhaps characterized as “out-of-time,” Clinton’s campaign demonstrated a notably diminished level of strategic acumen compared to that of Trump. To top it off, Trump’s victory in itself was highly contentious given although he won more electoral votes, Clinton pulled ahead in the popular vote. 

The fire of extreme polarization has been fueled by reinforcing preconceptions through echo chambers, microtargeting, and algorithms. Not to mention the lack of transparency from politicians and the inability to decipher fake news. As Democrats and Republicans aggressively attack one another and segregate the spectrum of party affiliation, a vibrant citizen democracy has ultimately suffered as the targeted victim. Partisanship in America unfolds like an intense drama, where political allegiances run deep, dividing the nation into fervently loyal camps, each passionately advocating its own propagated narrative. With every election, we see the political realm transform from the upholding of integral values to eroding confidence in the legitimacy of the democratic process as a whole. 

So–what does this mean for the 2024 election? The U.S. must prioritize comprehensive regulation and oversight of social media platforms. Implementing transparent algorithms, combating misinformation through fact-checking mechanisms, and promoting digital literacy will be essential in fostering an informed electorate. Cooperation of government agencies is imperative to establish guidelines that strike a balance between freedom of expression and preventing the undue influence of misinformation. In conclusion, the country must set aside their political differences in order to maintain the future of democracy in the United States.  

Works Cited

Dixon, S. (2023, February 13). Number of social media users worldwide 2010-2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/#:~:text=Social%20media%20usage%20is%20one 

Maltese, J. A. (2009). Communications strategies in the Bush White House. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/edinburgh-scholarship-online/book/15896/chapter-abstract/170802205?redirectedFrom=fulltext 

Persily, N. P. (2017). The 2016 U.S. election: Can Democracy Survive the internet? Retrieved from https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/the-2016-u-s-election-can-democracy-survive-the-internet/ 

Rattner, N. (2021, January 13). Trump’s election lies were among his most popular tweets. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/13/trump-tweets-legacy-of-lies-misinformation-distrust.html 

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