Nowadays, it seems like everyone knows where, when, and how to get their voices heard on issues they care about–but research shows that may not be the case.
As a political science major, I’ve always been interested in causes of political polarization and hostility–and, as a young adult, I’m bombarded every day with posts on Instagram about political content. Carefully crafted infographics with cute formatting, urges to call senators and sign petitions, and voting information can be overwhelming when seen every day, especially for people who have just turned old enough to fully participate in the political processes of the United States.
A couple of years ago, I decided to do some academic research on how social media has affected this generation’s outlook on politics and each other. Although it was a lot of work, I found a lot of troubling information that I honestly can not ever shut up about-and I never will. My work ended up getting published in a few places–check it out here if you’re interested–but, as I’ve found out, not everyone wants to read a 10-page essay about politics. So, I’ve compiled some of the most important things I think people need to know about posting and reading political content on social media.
One of the most common misconceptions about current political media is that it has just become partisan recently. In truth, the literal first newspaper in the United States colonies was born purely to push people towards a political opinion, and cable media has been enforcing agendas since the 1970s. Politics has always been prevalent in the media–what has changed is the age group that political media is affecting, and how that age group is using the media.
For my research, I compared answers to various questions about media consumption and feelings or actions towards those with differing opinions from multiple age groups: ages 16-81 were interviewed. While 80% of adults said they rarely saw political hostility in a school setting and among friends, 70% of current young adults answered that they dealt with political hostility often (meaning stereotyping, gossip, and social sorting are occurring far more often). This brings us to the question: if the media has always been partisan, what is making our generation so polarized, and so angry? This question holds a lot of importance, as it means we can’t use the media’s rhetoric as an excuse for polarized action–instead, we have to analyze how we use it.
Does Political Posting Do Anything?
I’ll be honest, I have fallen victim many times to carelessly sharing an infographic on my story. However, my research shows that over 50% of young adult respondents had a negative reaction to political posting of any kind, which is worrisome when combined with the evidence that around 45% of young adults get most of their political content from friends, family, and followers on social media, rather than news outlet’s accounts. Not only does this mean that political posts exacerbate already formed opinions, but a large number of young adults are getting political information from fellow young adults’ political posts too. This negativity forming is also happening in person–as said earlier, hostility in schools does exist due to this reaction that hadn’t existed before.
Additionally, I found that previous generations were far more likely to participate in protests and canvassing than our current generation. It’s almost as if posting politically has replaced physical action, but I don’t think this is intentional on anyone’s part. There have always been people who have cared about issues but haven’t wanted to go to a protest or further their activism beyond voting- it is now just more obvious that these people exist, as sharing your opinion is quite literally a click away.
Superiority Complexes and How to Combat Them
My research showed a factor of social media on political opinion that I genuinely wasn’t expecting–young adults are developing something called “perceived political superiority“. Not only is our generation more likely to think their political position is ultimately the better one, but they are also more likely to think that they know more about politics, government, and history than their peers. Exposure to infographics and blurbs about legislation has led young adults into thinking they know everything about our political system before they are even old enough to vote.
I’ve noticed perceived political superiority in people who have noticed how little positive action tends to come from political posting as well. Cries of “slacktivism” are thrown at people who have posted about an issue, but not shown up for a protest, or at people who have put a political graphic on their story without knowing about the issue in its entirety. Just as posting politically is unlikely to change any minds, feeling superior about your posting habits (whether it’s from posting or not–I have encountered both) is not going to change opinions either.
I am 100% guilty of building a superiority complex in the past based on my posting habits (and am still working on it), but the first step in battling that complex is admitting you have it, as well as understanding that people are not posting political content with bad intentions. Our energy, after learning about the effects of political posting, should be put into teaching others about it, not tearing people down or judging them on what they are doing online.
So, What Can We Do?
The real danger of political posting is growing while we’re distracted with our own perceived superiority– our generation is the least likely to converse with people who are not politically like-minded and is the most likely to be genuinely hostile towards them in social settings, partially because of our political posting habits. While this might not seem like a big deal, our generation will be filling Congress and the voting booths soon- and as we’ve already seen, partisanship and failure of communication do nothing in getting legislation passed or helping ideas be heard. While I get as angry about people’s political views as anyone, debate and conversation is a genuine skill that our generation is missing out on developing because we’re putting our opinions out there and shutting down or clicking past anything that doesn’t enforce our opinion.
Moving forward, I don’t want anyone to feel bad for posting about an issue they genuinely care about or a petition they want to see signed–it’s just important to know any opinions you reach will already be formed, and you are not going to change anyone’s mind with this method of political communication. However, if you are looking for signatures or votes, or to simply inform, you may find some receptive people. I think it’s crucial to do your own research on this topic and pass it on to anyone and everyone (my own paper is a good start–because again, I will not shut up about this topic). If you haven’t noticed the effects of our generation’s polarization yet, you will when we become the decision-makers in government, and teaching people with no judgment and open arms is a starting point to avoid a more hostile future.