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Opinion: Social Media, misinformation, and political polarization

Social media hinders productive online discourse
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SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

The manner in which Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, can only be described as hostile, aggressive, and devoid of civility. The Trump supporters had thousands of red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats that blazed like tiny suns and united them as if a flag of their own. 

A tweet of Donald Trump’s that he strategically sent out in the midst of the riots heightened the crowd’s animosity: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever.”

A landmark day in modern history, January 6, 2021 not only marks the date of the Capitol riots, but is also one of the first large-scale displays of the tangible, real-life effects that social media and online political polarization has had on today’s political and social climate. 

Similarly significant is the recent publication and popularization of a Global News article discussing the use of voluntary intoxication as a defence in violent crimes. For several days, Instagram, the primary social media site on which this article was popularized, flooded with short, out-of-context excerpts from this piece. 

Interestingly, the presence of this article on social media platforms and the online discussion that followed had similar effects to those of the Trump tweets, albeit on a much smaller scale. 

Excerpts from the Global News article relayed that the Supreme Court had revoked Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code, meaning that extreme intoxication can now be used as a form of defence in cases of violent crime and assault. 

However, two important aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision were left out of the information presented on Instagram. For one, the article failed to emphasize that undertaking such a defence will be rare and will only occur in unique situations. Additionally, the article did not acknowledge that this defence can only be used if the perpetrator was intoxicated to the point of complete psychosis. 

As such, the article failed to highlight that perpetrators with different levels of intoxication will be prosecuted differently. This ultimately led to the spreading of the false information that intoxication in general can be used as a criminal defence. 

The article only briefly mentioned that an intoxication defence could be used in complex cases such as the Thomas Chan case, in which a man from Peterborough, Ontario killed his father while intoxicated to the point of complete psychosis.  

Misinformation on the Supreme Court ruling coupled with the recent discussion regarding Roe v Wade resulted in a hostile and defensive social media climate in which many Instagram users spread misinformation regarding the Supreme Court decision. 

Despite the lack of relevant online discourse, some level of productive discussion did occur regarding the safety of victims and vulnerable groups. Beyond that, however, Instagram was an echo-chamber of ‘politically correct’ thoughts and ideas. 

The polarized nature of today’s online political world, specifically on social media, has severely stunted our ability to have substantial discussions on current social and political events. Today, Instagram acts as one of Generation Z’s main sources for current news. 

However, the news on social media is often jaded by antagonistic political posts that dissuade users from discussing opposing ideas or participating in fresh conversation. The reality is that, although this news from social media may be incorrect and partial, it is highly trusted by social media users. 

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, people began typing out their thoughts, clicking posts, and overwhelming our feeds with “informative” infographics. However, the rapid reposting of these infographics meant that, for many people, their opinions were not formed based on their individual values, but by the skewed information and biased opinions they witnessed online. 

Thoughtful discussion on the various aspects of social issues is crucial to progress, yet it is also necessary to recognize what happens when discussion becomes stifled by an influx of information that is supposedly politically correct. Social media’s obvious hand in polarization, as well as the normalization of political correctness, hinders our ability to progress socially, politically, and culturally. 

A direct link has been found between heightened political polarization and increased social segregation, which most often results in the othering of an opposing group and the justification of conflict and violence. Even within socially polarized groups, challenging discussion is nearly non-existent due to the pressure to conform to group standards and be politically correct. 

With 50 per cent of Generation Z relying on social media as a primary news outlet, it is especially important to look beyond the polarized nature of online political discourse by recognizing the importance of differing opinions and ideas, separating misinformation from the truth, and shifting ourselves away from the comfort of agreeing with mainstream discourse. 

Ayesha Firoz is a second-year social sciences student at Victoria College.