Ethan Hepworth: Polarization leaves American public unable to separate fact from fiction

(AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File) This Nov. 1, 2017, photo shows printouts of some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, photographed in Washington.

COVID vaccines contain microchips implanted by Bill Gates. Jan. 6 was legitimate political discourse. Russian interference won Donald Trump the 2016 election. The 2020 election was stolen.

These are some of the nefarious lies and misrepresentations that have poisoned political discourse and driven polarization in the United States. Conspiracies and political divisions have existed throughout all our country’s history; it has only been in the last decade, however, that they have become defining features of public discourse.

As the 2022 midterm elections begin to ramp up, it is of the utmost importance that the electorate pushes their respective candidates and elected officials to address this issue. Although many factors have contributed to polarization, the American public’s inability to separate fact from opinion and fallacy combined with the rise of massive social media platforms are the two factors that have contributed most to America’s polarization. Letting these factors go unaddressed is a risk this country cannot afford to take.

With disinformation being readily available to every American, being able to search for facts and ignore falsehoods are essential skills. Clearly, the current generations of Americans who hold political power have not been adequately trained in these areas. Devotion to networks or publications have supplanted devotion to truth. Bias becomes hopelessly warped if a person only watches MSNBC or exclusively listens to Ben Shapiro. Equipping the next generation of Americans with critical thinking and media literacy skills is essential if the United States wishes to break the cycle of hopeless partisan polarization.

Since it is neither realistic nor wise to mandate that American adults participate in media literacy training, efforts must be made in training the current generation of students with this skill. Rather than giving media literacy a courtesy glance in language arts classes, a full semester class in conjunction with a government and citizenship course should be made part of each student’s high school experience. Students would leave high school understanding the importance of critical news intake. Instilling these skills in America’s young people will make its future political leaders and voters more reasonable and effective.

Training the political class of tomorrow in media literacy will not, however, solve the problems of today. Regulation of social media platforms, the largest source of disinformation and hyperpolarization today, must occur. These platforms employ the use of sophisticated algorithms that aggressively profile users to facilitate content recommendation. By filtering your information intake, social media companies are essentially creating biased feeds for your enjoyment.

For many people, social media is their only source of news. Because these platforms so effectively create bias in information intake, users’ worldviews become warped. People of all political persuasions are bombarded with information confirming their biases and pushing them towards the extreme fringes of their respective ideologies.

To combat this, legislation regulating these algorithms must be passed. This can be done several ways. First, as former Facebook data scientist Roddy Lindsay suggests, lifting the liability shield protecting companies from responsibility for misinformation spread by personalized recommendation software on their platforms would force companies to reevaluate how their algorithms present information to users or else face the consequences.

Secondly, legislation such as the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, proposed by a bipartisan group of senators led by John Thune, R-South Dakota, could be implemented. Such legislation would force tech companies to explain their algorithms to their users and provide options for feeds not influenced by such software.

Finally, Congress could pass a strong set of data privacy laws as noted by Will Oremus of The Washington Post. By making it illegal to strongly profile their users, tech giants would be forced to abandon their current business model and move towards a structure more beneficial for society.

The United States’ current trend toward hyperpolarization is unsustainable. We can, and should, disagree on policy, but to disagree on facts is unacceptable. By undertaking social media regulation and providing more robust media literacy education, America might be able to move towards a less polarized and subsequently more healthy society.

Ethan Hepworth

Ethan Hepworth is a senior at Copper Hills High School. This essay is the winner of the Fifth Annual Utah High School Essay Contest on Civility in Politics & Public Life sponsored by Westminster’s Honors College and underwritten by WCF Insurance.