There’s a new paper boy on the block. No, it’s not some snot-nosed kid whose parents thought getting a paper route would teach him the importance of hard work, when he’s really in it for some extra cash to buy new Xbox games. He’s not working for less than minimum wage, either. In fact, he makes $230 a second, and he actually isn’t a “he” at all, but a monolithic “it” known the world over by a benign lowercase white “F” on a peaceful blue background. I’m talking of course, about Facebook, the social media mammoth used by 1.19 billion around the world and 58% of American internet users.
What’s more, from that group of internet-using Americans, 48% were likely to have gotten political news from Facebook in the last week. Among web users, this makes the social media site more popular than cable news bastions like CNN and Fox News. But does the approach towards political coverage change on social media?
Aaron Sankin of the Daily Dot in a recent, highly informative op-ed, explains how Facebook pushes exposure of articles related to trending topics, creating an incentive for publishers to quickly release related stories in order to ride the viral wave. He claims that this makes it difficult for stories out of the mainstream to break through. I don’t disagree, but I would add that on Facebook, the term “mainstream” is subjective since users have control over the types of people and outlets that they see. In terms of political media, the most engaged consumers, likers, and sharers are those closer to either end of the ideological spectrum. Because of this, it’s easy to see how information emanates from two poles. Similarly, less politically engaged moderates are already more likely to turn to their more engaged, more partisan friends for political information in the first place.
Sure, there may have always been distinctly conservative and liberal news outlets, but the sheer penetrative power of channels like Facebook means that we’re in uncharted territory as far as how this ends up affecting all of us. While it’s impossible to offer a definitive analysis at this point, it’s clear that the changes in information distribution coincide with the jostling of our political system. Polarization has sharply risen while national electoral flips have become frequent. With a few exceptions, parties in the 20th century maintained dominance in either house of Congress for several consecutive election cycles—14 years here, 16 years there. The Democrats even held the House of Representatives for 40 years between 1958 and 1998. But since 2002, the House and Senate have both switched hands twice at different times, by big margins too. All the while, disenfranchised voters have shied away from the polls at record numbers, letting the more engaged folks closer to either end of the ideological spectrum cast ballots. Just like on Facebook, these people have become the major influencers.