A look at the role media plays in polarisation and the perpetuation of the Us vs Them narrative.
Who are your neighbours? Who are your community members? Who are your countrymen/women/people? Do you know? Would you recognise them in a line up? Would you recognise them in a Facebook comments section?
We are increasingly becoming a community divided, and the media is largely to blame. Traditionally – and ideally – the role of media in a democracy is to inform the public, create space for meaningful debate, and hold the rich and powerful to account. A functioning media is central to a functioning democracy, and should demonstrate a commitment to the public good. Far from this ideal, however, much of our media is not committed to this but beholden to corporate interests. With the exceptions of RNZ and Māori TV, all major New Zealand media platforms are commercial enterprises, dependent upon advertising revenue and motivated by profit margin, and largely owned by offshore entities. This ad revenue is driven by ratings, and you know what drives ratings? Sensational, emotional, evocative content. Do you feel pissed off when listening to the radio/watching current affairs shows/reading the newspaper? This is by design.
Like these more traditional media platforms, major social media corporations operate according to this same model: Users create content > algorithms maximise consumer engagement > profit in the form of advertising revenue. In the same way that sensational, emotional and evocative content drives ratings, it also drives engagement – particularly if it stokes feelings of fear, anger or anxiety. Clickbait entices us with sensational headlines but little substance; fake news proliferates. Algorithms are designed to funnel us more of what we engage with the most – their job is to keep consumers clicking, generating more and more ad revenue. This is by design.
This algorithmic advertising machinery has made social media owners rich beyond belief. It has also had a, perhaps unexpected, but definitely troubling effect on our communities, by aiding and abetting polarisation. After assessing what kinds of content we tend to engage with, algorithms feed us more and more similar content, reflecting the same worldviews and perspectives, while filtering out anything contrary to this perspective. This leads to the creation of echo chambers – in which our own worldviews are echoed back at us, and we lose touch with a diversity of perspectives. Within echo chambers, a new baseline of normality is set and new boundaries for discussion are forged. Over time, once radical ideas become normalised, conspiratorial notions sound more and more sensible. Meanwhile, the perspectives of those on the other side of the divide become so foreign, they seem as if they’re from a different planet. Ideological differences become insurmountable.
Now we have Us on one side of the debate, and Them on the other. The Us versus Them dynamic is a narrative function which frames worldviews and our conception of reality. We see it in the increasingly vicious left-wing/right-wing media spaces, each villianising the other, blaming the other, hating the other. These narratives can take on new life, growing more and more conspiratorial, placing blame for all the world’s evils at the feet of a shadowy cabal, bent on the destruction of all things holy, hungry for a new world order. But these narratives take place at a more local level also, targeting vulnerable members of our communities, othering them, signifying Them as somehow different – and therefore a threat – to Us.
Take a moment to reflect, then, when listening to the radio/watching current affairs shows/reading the newspaper/scrolling your newsfeed: Who is the villain in this story? Is it the beneficiary/protester/student/immigrant? The boomer/millennial/renter/striking worker? The homeless and jobless? The unwed, single, teenage mother? The refugee? Because actually, that’s the community – our community – and we have more in common than this Us vs Them rhetoric would have us believe.
A rift has formed, between families and friends – a rift that is felt in my own relationship with my father. My father; kind, loyal, forgiving. He is a man of firm values and unshakeable integrity. He is the best person I know, and yet the tenor of the ideological debate we find ourselves on opposing sides of, has started to interfere in our relationship. Politics is off the table when we reunite in the family home – it cannot be talked about without tensions rising, feelings hurt, and that wedge driven deeper between us; me, mum, sisters and brothers on the one side, dad on the other. Why though, do tensions rise so high? Why do feelings hurt so keenly? I don’t know about you, but my politics is integral to my identity; shaped by my worldview, beliefs and values, which are in turn informed by my experiences, relationships, and perceptions of the world around me. And by politics I don’t just mean Labour vs National, right vs left, but questions of equality, justice, rights, oppressions and how to overcome them.
I started listening to my father again. I felt – realised – quite suddenly, that his home had become a place where he could not express, discuss or work through his politics. I listened to his very real anxieties about the world and realised that we indeed have more in common than not. We moved beyond the left/right debate and back to questions of equality, justice, rights, oppressions and how to overcome them. We bridged the gap between us, the gap that pits us against each other; that pits generation against generation, taxpayers against beneficiaries, workers against the homeless, underemployed against refugees. We realised that we want the same things after all, and those machinations designed to divide us cannot break the bond of love that we share. So who stands to benefit from our mistrust of each other? Could it be that us, regular people, would be too powerful in our unity?
When polarisation splits our communities in two, those on the other side start to look more different, more alien, and our own position feels threatened, under attack. As this chasm grows wider, fuelled by anxiety, difference and an inability to relate, it becomes more difficult to hear what the other is trying to say. It is important to step outside of those virtual communities that offer us comfort by echoing back to us our own familiar perspectives, into real communities, in which there is anxiety and conflict. By listening to this anxiety and working through the conflict we find common ground, hope and a shared vision. Listening to others will strengthen our community; patience, compassion and conversation become the bridge.