Social media's influence on political polarization: a call for tolerance

28th March 2021

By: Laura Jula and Laura Grisales

The internet and social media have changed almost every aspect of our daily lives, from the way we shop to how we relate politically. One of the drastic effects globally has been the exponential increase in the amount of information we can access at the click of a button, even information that was once reserved for certain elites, for example, educational courses. This has had a democratizing effect on our societies on several fronts, as access to and dissemination of information is available to everyone with an internet connection. Additionally, it has facilitated different social mobilizations and has allowed minorities to raise their voices claiming their rights. However, social networks have also become a battleground with a dangerous tendency: those who think differently are considered enemies.

Within this global phenomenon, Colombia has been no exception. According to a worldwide study on the use of social networks, 35 million Colombians use the internet an average of 9 hours and 10 minutes a day, of which 3 hours and 45 minutes a day correspond to social networks. Additionally, Colombia is the Latin American country where people spend the most time checking their social networks and ranks second worldwide. Being on this podium makes Colombians particularly vulnerable to having their opinions skewed by the constant bombardment of information.

While it could be argued that the passionate political debates witnessed on networks such as Facebook and Twitter happen because the users involved in the discussions are the most passionate about current controversies, the reality turns out to be more complex. Additional elements such as social media algorithms and political manipulation propaganda play a vital role in the relationship between politics and social media.

'The algorithm' is how the social network is programmed, the rules by which it decides in which order and how often posts are displayed. These rules are continuously adapted, using an input of user data that these platforms store. The algorithm works to provide each user with personalized content, according to their previous behavior, the platform's interests, and those who have advertisements on it. This results in each user receiving only certain types of information, sometimes false information.

Social network algorithms' influence on political radicalization has been denounced for several years by technology industry employees, data science experts, and academics who have researched this phenomenon through the lens of psychology, sociology, economics, ethics, and law. Social networks such as Facebook have been criticized for not effectively controlling the spread of false information, even going so far as to promote it. This is because inflammatory information often leads to more clicks. Unscrupulous authors have used data from these networks to research what is attractive on a social network and create posts to better manipulate the virtual and social network communities.

In terms of political manipulation propaganda, a 2019 Oxford University report revealed that political parties and their detractors have manipulated public opinion virtually in Colombia. The user's effect is to create a bubble that reinforces their own views, further radicalizing individuals and forming a division into groups: those who agree with a particular opinion and those who do not. Each group's belief is reinforced, and its tolerance to other's opinions is minimized.

This is exacerbated in a country with armed conflicts. These conflicts usually have a symbolic battleground, where each group aggressively seeks to project its own narrative and interpretation of events. Strategies of disinformation, propaganda, and fear are commonly used in this framework. A clear example was the disinformation surrounding the peace agreement reached in Havana in 2016, where some terms were used to generate fear by manipulating information. Terms such as "gender ideology" -which was born in the 1990s in the Catholic sphere to counter criticism against men and women's traditional roles- were used as an anti-peace process campaign strategy, misrepresenting the gender focus of the agreement (Viveros Vigoya, 2016).

While the political debate is promoted as an expression of freedom in states governed by the rule of law, its purpose, which is to protect plurality, must not be forgotten. Extremist groups have benefited from the creation of bubbles, shielding the dissemination of false information as a valid use of their freedom of expression. However, it can be argued that the spirit of this right is being violated, as the discourse of certain actors is being empowered, without a commitment to plurality or truth. Additionally, repetitive information generates an emotional charge that promotes feelings of total acceptance or rejection, with no middle ground. It forces people to position themselves in one of the opposing poles (pro-life and pro-abortion, left and right, or, in the case of Colombia, mamertos and fachos, ...). 

One way to mitigate this problem stems from the fundamental values of education, tolerance, and respect at the individual level. On the technical side, a good start to avoid receiving biased information is to do your own research for news and opposing opinions and follow friends and websites that hold different opinions, as long as those media commit to the truth. Also, maintaining curiosity, seeking reliable secondary sources of what is said in images or on networks, and commenting respectfully on the posts are strategies for creating pluralistic environments.

In addition to the individual aspect, the State, of course, should intervene to mitigate cases of politically motivated discrimination.  The use of strategies such as digital education and legal regulation on the subject is necessary, including a guiding principle promoting tolerance and the guarantee of citizen protection against virtual political manipulation.  Even with these measures, a change in the different platforms' algorithmic programming is still urgent to contain the political division generated by manipulating users and promoting discussion in an environment of tolerance.