Friday, November 28, 2014

On Media Slants

If you tried to log on to any form of social media after 8 o’clock PM this past Monday, you probably found yourself in the center of a raging battlefield. After prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, the internet erupted with noise. Some were outraged, some were thankful; judging by the sheer quantity of data produced in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision, very few people had absolutely no opinion on the matter. Even those who didn’t take to posting Facebook statuses of their own were still sharing articles, favoriting tweets, reblogging posts on Tumblr, or reinforcing their stance elsewhere. Internet servers all over the nation—and in various countries across the world—lit up with millions of voices, all offering their own opinions, or supporting those of others, regarding the events in Ferguson.

But, depending on what media you accessed for that information, the opinions you came across probably varied greatly. I, personally, avoided Facebook to steer clear of the less-informed opinions of:
  1. My older relatives who use the Sunday paper and book club meetings with their equally up-to-date friends as their sole sources of information  
  2. Not-quite-politically-conversant middle schoolers who either think every word their parents say is gold, or think every word their parents say is absolute trash and needs to be contradicted
  3. People my age trying to make this situation into a joke, because apparently, half of my high school friends didn’t think graduation was the perfect time to finally mature.
Facebook certainly wasn’t the only social media site to host opinions regarding the news. My entire Twitter feed was hijacked by talk of Ferguson, and despite the inordinate amount of puppy-picture blogs I follow on Tumblr, I saw all kinds of posts dedicated to the hot topic. Of course, I wasn’t upset to see talk of Ferguson—I’m proud to say that my generation isn’t completely uninvolved in politics. What I found most surprising was that, according to where I went, I was given a different flavor of opinions. On Tumblr, the general consensus aligned pretty directly with what one could call the more “liberal” view of the situation. Posts about the injustice of the situation on that particular site reached over 100,000 notes (a combination of “favorites” and “reblogs”) within an hour or two of McCulloch’s announcement, while the opposing voices seemed almost completely silenced. On the other hand, after reading the comment sections on a few articles on Yahoo, I was introduced to a completely different set of opinions.

Which leads me to the topic of this post.

Until this past week, I hardly noticed that different websites have fairly different political affiliations from each other. For some reason, I’d always assumed that my experiences on different sites are dependent on the people I associate with on them. Which is not totally untrue, of course. On practically any form of social media, really, you are enclosed in some sort of filter bubble for two reasons:
1)      You choose who you pay attention to. Regardless of whether or not you actually try to filter out opinions different from yours, you’re more inclined to surround yourself with people who are like you. It’s a natural instinct, folks. It’s not really your fault.
2)      When you’re not choosing who to pay attention to, the website is doing that for you! While websites like Twitter and Tumblr leave you in charge of what you see (posts are displayed chronologically, not based on who likes them or whether or not you’ve reacted to things from  their creator before, so it's all up to you regarding what content is on your dashboard in the first place), other websites – like Facebook – have their own built-in algorithms that do the filtering for you. Tend to binge-watch interviews with Jennifer Lawrence? Well, lucky for you, YouTube will suggest all kinds of videos involving JLaw on the sidebar!
But, even beyond the filter bubbles that either you construct for yourself, or the website constructs for you, most sites you visit already have a general political slant in place. As displayed by the picture below, which not only shows thirteen different sites’ political affiliation but places them on a scale assessing their political activeness as well, where you get your information from can affect the actual information you receive.

Naturally, not everything you come across on Bing (if you use Bing at all) is going to preach the value of lowering taxes and slander welfare, just like how not every post on Reddit will praise Obamacare and honor feminism. But in general, Pinterest nurtures a more upper-class conservative gathering, while the liberal hipsters with their colorful capris and #nofilter Starbucks pictures frequent Instagram.

On most days, the political playing-field seems pretty even on the websites I visit. As the graph above shows, most popular websites – Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. – are not all that politically active. Even Twitter, which is ranked third among thirteen in political activity, strays not too far from the middle of the road. This is why on most days, the politics you see on each of these sites will depend almost solely on the people you associate with, not on the overall political affiliation of the users. Of course, you may have a completely different experience than I do – maybe politics define your social media experience all day, every day, or maybe all you ever come across on these sites are avant-garde recipes for organic cupcakes and “What Harry Potter Character Are You?” quizzes – but the graph above represents the experience of the internet’s general users. For example, the articles you pay attention to on Yahoo News may all be praising Hillary Clinton, but if so, Yahoo’s overall viewership wouldn’t exactly concur:
(Sorry, Hillary.)

Still, politics seem to be in the background of social media a majority of the time. Maybe it’s because my generation is “politically inept and only cares about video games and shopping” (a direct quote from my grandpa); maybe it’s because we’re a fairly conflict-avoidant nation. You wouldn’t think so by the comments on your run-of-the-mill BuzzFeed article, where the most radical users come out of the woodwork, but for the most part, Americans don’t want to argue politics. Well, most Americans don’t even really like politics, and would rather watch a movie than sit and discuss the unproductivity of Congress. Maybe it’s because we’re disenchanted with the system. Or maybe it’s because for some kids my age, our values completely contradict the values of our grandparents, and family reunions are so much more bearable if we limit our conversations to “When is Cindy getting married?” and “Has Bert decided where he’s going to college?” In the end, a variety of things can explain the trend of political inactivity on social media.

However, the political slants of different sites can’t be completely ignored. While they can be overlooked in relatively peaceful periods, whenever an especially controversial topic comes to light, different social media begins to show their true colors. When the Supreme Court made a decision that paved way for the legalization of gay marriage in several states, the general consensus on their verdict varied across the web. When President Obama launched the executive order regarding Immigrants, sites like Tumblr rejoiced, while most of the articles on Yahoo News seethed.

And when the events in Ferguson took place, Twitter was outraged over the apparent step back in civil rights, while the more conservative sites focused primarily on the photo of protestors burning the American Flag. Depending on where you went, you’d be either greeted with calm acceptance of the verdict and disenchantment with the rioters, or with anger over the unfairness of the situation and embitterment with ignorance.

With all the ongoing discussion about how filter bubbles affect the information we receive, it seems that most internet users are quick to speculate how the people around them impact what they know. But the people around you aren’t the only ones that make up your filter. It’s the websites, too. Which is why, in this world of a rapidly burgeoning information supply, it’s vital that you consider not only who you’re getting your information from, but where you’re getting it, as well. 

As Mark Zuckerberg once said: “With social networks and other tools on the Internet, all the [users] have a way to say what they’re thinking and have their voice be heard.” Whether your voice soars above the noise, or fades into the background, may simply depend on where you choose to express it.


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