Our world is becoming significantly more polarized and the media is to blame. People like seeing media that agrees with their views and, with the growth of media in the past 40 years, there is now so much that people have the opportunity to watch only the outlets that they agree with which is exactly what they do. On top of that, in order for news to stand out in this over-saturated world, they have to make bold claims which often stretch the truth. Combining this with the already existing political echo chambers through divided, one-sided media, the ideology of said echo chambers moves further apart. Before the 1980s, the media was regulated to make broadcasters have a fair representation on both sides of any given argument. This was called the FCC Fairness Doctrine. By 1987, however, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed out of the claim that it was against the First Amendment. The repeal of this doctrine paved the way for modern talk radio which, with it, caused a new age of opinion media.1 When the internet was created, the media from the radio and TV migrated and expanded. People ended up finding that they had more information that they knew what to do with in the time of the internet. This caused a need for algorithms to sort and display the media that every individual user wants to see. When people only see media that they want—which is media that agrees with their views—it leads to confirmation bias.Before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters were cautious not to put out inflammatory content for fear that they would be taken off the air. This caused the broadcasters to seemingly understand the other side. This also allowed the possibility that both sides would agree with the broadcasts, which resulted in the information relayed being less politically one-sided. This more impartial media coverage encouraged listeners, as a result, to view political debates as civil discourse rather than attacking the other side. After the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, however, media became more politically partisan. The repeal began to shift the focus of the media from accuracy and reputation to profit. With radio shows such as The Rush Limbaugh Show going further to one side of the political spectrum, the people who listened followed and people became more divided. In the midst of already existing political polarization, the internet offered a new medium that would allow significantly more media to be available to the public. With this plethora of new information on the internet, echo chambers were created which further grouped and divided the population. Removing regulations on political media shifted the motives of broadcasters from establishing the trust of the public to being driven by profit. After all, without any regulations, why wouldn’t the media companies say whatever would give them the most money? By doing so, the biases of media outlets grew further apart, resulting in exacerbated polarization in the media as a whole and therefore resulted in a more divided public. By not holding the media accountable for exaggerated or even false information, they say whatever will get attention and therefore profit–which often isn’t representative of the truth.
The FCC Fairness Doctrine thus discouraged extreme polarization as the federal government had removed broadcasters from the air in prior decades after they encouraged bold, polarizing claims. During its use, the Fairness Doctrine was seen as a “right to reply for politicians who were subject to personal attack.”2 This was to ensure that voters know the truth of a politician and so media outlets themselves do not have too much of an influence or bias. As a result, the mainstream media was viewed as a trustworthy source because the public knew that if a broadcaster became too biased, they would get removed. An example of this is with Father Coughlin who began broadcasting religion in the late 1920s, but later moved to politics. When talking about politics, he had a clear right-leaning viewpoint. By 1934, his viewpoints were more polarizing, stating that the New Deal was “creeping communism”.3 It is estimated that at his peak, he reached about 30 million listeners. The FCC viewed his broadcasts as too controversial in the time of war and forced him off the air. This was because the Fairness Doctrine’s requirements were that broadcasters air competing positions. This caused broadcasters to get nervous about airing any controversial or one-sided claims. With broadcasters giving a voice to both sides, the potential for polarization is suppressed. The conditions of the doctrine, “...made it hard for first-generation postwar right-wing media to reach mass distribution on a national scale”.4 Less polarizing content was aired during the time of the Fairness Doctrine because the media was held accountable for the information that was aired. People were encouraged from both sides to consider what they found agreeable in broadcasts on the opposing political side, encouraging civil discourse between the political spectrum which defined the bipartisan unity of the 1940’s and 1950’s.Although the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine plays a significant role in the aggravated tensions between political parties, it is not entirely the fault of the repeal for polarization during this time. Other factors are involved in the increased political divide seen throughout the 1980s. For example, when Reagan began his presidential election campaign in 1980, he subtly involved the issue of race by speaking in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the scene of the murder of three civil rights activists by white resistance). During Reagan’s speech, he said, “I believe in states rights”. Although the line itself was not directly talking about race, the tone was still set. According to the American political journalist, Steve Kornacki in The Red and the Blue,
“…race was so intertwined with the most contentious issues of the 1970s and ’80s, from school busing and affirmative action to welfare and crime, that it was possible to stoke prejudices in ways that were politically advantageous.” 5
Even without the influence of polarizing media, the political divisions were still used for personal benefit. If not for profit, for political gain. This exploitation was not just apparent in the republican party. The democratic party did the same thing and tugged harder in the opposite direction, further developing the us vs. them rhetoric.6 This causes the population to be more concerned with hating the other side than agreeing with their own. Ezra Klein quotes Miller and Conover in Why We’re Polarized saying, “[w]hen partisans endure meetings, plant yard signs, write checks, ands spend hours volunteering, what is likely foremost in their minds is that they are furious with the opposing party...not a specific issue agenda”.7 With having the motivation for many to involve themselves in political hatred, the tensions between political parties intensifies. In 2017, Beto O’Rourke, a democrat, ran for senate against Ted Cruz, a republican rival of the democratic party. By focusing his campaign against Ted Cruz rather than for his own policies, his candidacy gained popularity and support. In fact, he raised the most money of any Senate race. Although he still lost, his overwhelming support convinced him to run for president. When running against other democrats, however, he failed to gain the same support. As Klein puts it, “[y]ou don’t just need support. You need anger”.8 People are more influenced by hatred and anger of the other side than agreement of their own side. This causes a lack of understanding of the other side and therefore further polarizes the parties. Because political candidates use divisions to their advantage, the polarization is not entirely the fault of the reduced media regulations.Because the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine came at a time where political tension was already high, the doctrine had a profoundly polarizing impact on the state of politics in the 1980s and 1990s that interested with the larger partisan dominance during this time period. During the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives felt that mainstream media was biased against them. Even though this viewpoint was embraced by the right-leaning population, professional journalists were still considered trustworthy at this time. This trust can be attributed to their attempt to show both sides of topics to appease the rules set in place by the Fairness Doctrine.9 The repeal of the doctrine allowed broadcasters and networks to now work exclusively for profit and therefore benefit from putting out bold claims to attract more people. This made the bias of the networks more apparent and the tensions between ideologies more mainstream. Instead of hatred for the other side only used for political campaigns, the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine caused this hatred driven language to be used in the mainstream media causing what used to be trustworthy to become viewed as biased. In the 1980s under the Reagan administration, the FCC had a deep ideological commitment to free markets and so the FCC Chair Mark Fowler led a campaign to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC eventually repealed the doctrine in 1987 with the reason being that it was inconsistent with the First Amendment.10 In the time where political tensions were already high, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine only made it easier for this polarization to be widespread. Rush Limbaugh jumped on this opportunity and started giving media through only a conservative viewpoint. By 2003, 10% of Americans listened to The Rush Limbaugh Show on the radio. It was so popular that Tom DeLay, a former member of the House of Representatives, stated that Limbaugh himself, “was setting the standard for conservative thought”.11 It is dangerous to have one person set the precedent for an ideology. Instead, the public should gather their own information and come to their own conclusions. It is even worse to have someone not even a professional journalist or politician dictate the “conservative thought” as they may not know the nuances of politics. Furthermore, conservatives in general saw the role of Limbaugh as a party leader. Many democrats saw the influence that Rush Limbaugh had on the American population and wanted to reinstate the Doctrine through what was called the “Hush Rush” movement.12 This marked the time where everyone could no longer agree with the media, which resulted in further polarization. The repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine only proved to be a catalyst for further tensions between the political parties as media became more inflammatory.Alongside the FCC Fairness Doctrine repeal, TV offered a new medium for media which caused more of a need for each network to stand out. Due to the competition and the lack of regulation, with TV came a further push towards polarizing media, which further divided the country. With the introduction of the television for household use, the FCC did not view it as another outlet for media. Glen Robinson, author of The Electronic First Amendment: An Essay for the New Age, notes, “Cable was supplanting conventional, single-channel broadcasting–and with it the foundation on which the public interest obligations had been laid “.13 The FCC Chair Mark Fowler even called the TV a “toaster with pictures” implying that it should be treated as any other home appliance and therefore should not have heavy regulations.14 This view of the television acted similar to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine by letting media organizations be driven by profit as opposed to being accountable for the information they put out. Because of the FCC’s view of the TV, regulations on the radio did not translate over to it which, in turn, hurt the FCC as it gave them less control.15 FOX News, CNN and MSNBC took advantage of the lack of regulations and became dominant, polarizing news outlets. With more accessible polarizing media, the public can choose to watch one-sided media and they did. In 2008, Nielsen data showed that 50% of households watch at least five minutes of either CNN/MSNBC or FOX News every day. Out of those news-watching households, 59% of them watched some networks more than others.16 Half of the population relies on news sources that are not regulated and are not held accountable for false information. These polarizing news outlets have a significant influence on the public’s political views. With the TV entering American’s homes, seemingly bypassing regulation, polarizing news outlets became more accessible and gained more influence over the public’s thoughts.
In the midst of media outlets becoming more accessible, the internet created an information superhighway. There was so much information that websites needed to sort it. These algorithms used in online media further aggravated tensions between political parties as media outlets begin to choose what users should see what media. Social media platforms such as Facebook gather information about its users to give a tailored experience for every user. Because people only want to see information they agree with, Facebook cuts out everything else. This further perpetuates confirmation bias which results in skewed viewpoints. The cost of internet news is significantly less than previous methods such as TV and radio which means there can be more content.17 More content means more organization and division which results in a more polarized and less centrist user base. These algorithms are, however, essential because of the overwhelming amount of information on the internet. With the use of some sort of algorithm necessary the following questions arise: how much power should these algorithms have? Should they be random or should they only show users what they want to see? In Facebook’s defense, the majority of the echo chambers and divisions produced by their social media platform were primarily caused by the users themselves. Facebook is only giving the user what they want. The social media platform could, however, show cross-cutting content to allow the possibility of their users branching out.18 When questioned about why the algorithms give users local, relevant news instead of global news, Mark Zuckerburg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, responded by saying, “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests than people dying in Africa”.19 By only giving information directly correlated with the user, Facebook acts to further keep people in the ideas and media that they are already accustomed to. In order for the view of society to evolve, individuals’ ideas and opinions need to be challenged. As Thomas Jefferson noted in his first inaugural address, any man who has differing opinions than the public should “...stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it”.20 It is important to welcome differing opinions for it is what progresses society. Even though people want media that agrees with their beliefs, it is not the best method for easing the already detrimental tensions between political parties.
Russia demonstrated the potential for polarization of echo chambers in the internet by taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithms during the 2016 presidential election. The United States government released irrefutable evidence that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) was using Facebook for their own political gain. The US government stated, “The Committee found that the IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin”.21 Their goal was to “...undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and hurt her electability and potential presidency”.22 This further proves that it is to the detriment of our society to have the public influenced by the political divisions caused by the internet. The aim for this attack was to provoke anger within the American population and to divide them further. Through Russia's interference in the 2016 United States presidential election, the vulnerability to the influence by the internet on the population was brought to light.
By having a plethora of organized media, the internet allows its users to choose what viewpoints they want to see which leads to echo chambers. Echo chambers then lead to a further gap between people’s viewpoints which results in more extreme and more defined political divisions. As Natalie Stroud noted in Niche News: The Politics of News Choice,
”[b]y removing geographical constraints, the internet provides a way for citizens with common predispositions to interact. ‘Echo chambers’ could form, Sustein worries, leading to more extreme attitudes and intolerance”.23
People no longer have to deal with others who disagree with them. Because everywhere in the world the internet is the same, you can communicate with people with similar ideologies as you without dealing with anyone else. These echo chambers, according to Normal Nie and his team, leave “little opportunity for [users] ideas to be challenged”.24 When people lose the tolerance for civil discourse, their views no longer have to be backed up with logic or evidence. People in the internet age have the choice to believe anything they want to. This results in a disturbance in every aspect of American life including “how elites engaged masses and [sic] how people were, or were not, able to distinguish fact from fiction”.25 With no way to prove if information is false on the internet, the public themselves chose what to believe and what not to believe. The chaos and vastness of the internet also allows people to only read what they agree with, which causes echo chambers. These echo chambers divide us further apart.
From the emergence of social media, media can now be provided by anyone, not just professional journalists which allows for the spread of more false information. Because most social media websites are open to the public to post, this also means that anyone can post and they can post whatever they want. A popular social media site, Reddit housed a sub-website–or subreddit–r/findbostonbombers. r/findbostonbombers, as the name suggests, was created during the hunt for the 2013 Boston marathon bombers in hopes that the chase could be crowd sourced. As expected, many of the top posts on this site were filled with a large number of innocent people labeled as potential perpetrators—one of whom, Sunil Tripathi, committed sucide because the harassment got so bad.26 Because the site ranks posts based on popularity rather than accuracy, these ‘major leads’ were dominating the front page. By rewarding these false accusations, users on the subreddit were more inclined to post bold, inflammatory claims.27 No amount of social media popularity should be equated with the journalistic integrity or the intelligence of the professionals. By doing so, we are moving in the polar opposite direction as the spirit of the FCC Fairness Doctrine as false information is reaching the viewer.
The polarization in politics is greatly exacerbated through the lack of regulation and the over organization of our media. In the time of the FCC Fairness Doctrine, the political polarization was not as rampant as today because broadcasters were concerned with being taken off the air for unfair claims. Although this doctrine played an important role for calming tensions between parties, the polarization during the 1980s and 1990s can not be fully attributed to the repeal of this doctrine. However, the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine came at a time of heightened political polarization which caused the polarizing effects to be significantly intensified. Apart from the repealed regulation, the amount of media accessible also was a factor in significantly increased polarization. TV offered a new medium for media which caused more competition. With more competition, each media outlet needed to provide bold–often not true–claims to keep viewers. These outlets also do not have to care about being taken off the air. During the time of increased accessibility of media, the internet brought more information than people knew what to do with. This left the sorting and tailoring of this information to sites such as Facebook and Reddit. The algorithms used for this, as expected, show users the information that they want to see which resulted in echo chambers. These echo chambers then lead the public’s viewpoints to becoming more extreme. After all, users don’t see anyone who disagrees with their own opinions. Along with an abundance of information provided by the internet, social media sites also allowed anyone with an internet connection to post, not just professional journalists. By allowing any information on social media sites, the public loses the ability to tell what is factual. This enables the public to believe what they want which proves to be polarizing.
We currently live in a world with an overabundance of information without regulation which causes people to not know the difference between fact or fiction. The public can believe whatever they want to. As Klein puts it,
“The post-Enlightenment view of humanity is that we are rational individuals whose actions may be inflamed by instinct but are ultimately governed by calculation. But what if it was the other way around? What if our loyalties and prejudices are governed by instinct and merely rationalized by calculation?”28
The echo chambers that our oversaturated media creates causes more division and more alienation of other people not in our group. Democracy itself relies on the rational thought and decisions of the public. This rational thought is dwindling in our society of sensational media and a blurred line between fact and fiction. Our media has devolved into profiting off of the political division. If we continue to view people by their associations–such as political parties–then we risk losing seeing people as the same as us–as humans.
Benkler, Yochai, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.
The Independent. “Family of Sunil Tripathi - Missing Student Wrongly Linked to Boston,” April 26, 2013. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/family-of-sunil-tripathi-missing-student-wrongly-linked-to-boston-marathon-bombing-thank-well-8586850.html> Accessed May 1, 2020.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, and Joseph N Cappella. Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Jefferson, Thomas. “First Inaugural Address” Speech, Washington D.C., March 1801
Klein, Ezra. Why We’re Polarized. S.l.: AVID READER PR, 2020.
Kornacki, Steve. The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism. First edition. New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.
Nie, Norman H., et al. “The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market.” American Journal of Political Science 54, no. 2 (2010): 428–39.
Office of the Director of National Security. Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. Washington, D.C. January 6, 2017. <https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf> Accessed May 1, 2020.
Slate. “Findbostonbombers: Reddit vs. the Media in Search for Boston Bombing Suspects.” Accessed April 30, 2020. <https://slate.com/technology/2013/04/findbostonbombers-reddit-vs-the-media-in-search-for-boston-bombing-suspects.html> Accessed May 1, 2020.
Stroud, Natalie Jomini. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sunstein, Cass R. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Third printing, and First paperback printing. Princeton, N.J. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Intelligence. Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election Volume 2: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional Views. 116th Cong., 1st sess., S. Rep., Washington, DC. <https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume2.pdf> Accessed May 1, 2020.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 45-46. ↩
Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 317. ↩
Benkler and Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, 314. ↩
Ibid., 317. ↩
Kornacki, Steve. The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism. First edition. New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018, 25-26. ↩
Ibid., 26 ↩
Klein, Ezra. Why We’re Polarized. S.l.: AVID READER PR, 2020, 62. ↩
Klein, Why We're Polarized, 318. ↩
Benkler and Roberts, *Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, *318. ↩
Ibid., 321. ↩
Jamieson and Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, 46. ↩
Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, 45. ↩
Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, 321. ↩
Robinson, The Electronic First Amendment: An Essay for the New Age, 904. ↩
Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2011. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press, 55-56. ↩
Norman H. Nie et al., “The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market,” American Journal of Political Science 54:2 (2010): 428–39, 248. ↩
Sunstein, Cass R. 2018. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Third printing, and First paperback printing. Princeton, N.J. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 122. ↩
Ibid., 124. ↩
Jefferson, Thomas. “First Inaugural Address” Speech, Washington D.C., March 1801 ↩
U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Intelligence, *Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election Volume 2: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional Views, *116th Cong., 1st sess., S. Rep. Washington, DC. <https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume2.pdf> Accessed May 1, 2020. ↩
Office of the Director of National Security. Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, January 6, 2017. <https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf> Accessed May 1, 2020. ↩
Stroud, *Niche News: The Politics of News Choice, *12. ↩
Nie, Miller, Golde, Butler, Winneg, *The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market, *436. ↩
Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, 289. ↩
Andrew Buncombe, “Family of Sunil Tripathi - Missing Student Wrongly Linked to Boston,” The Independent, April 26, 2013. <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/family-of-sunil-tripathi-missing-student-wrongly-linked-to-boston-marathon-bombing-thank-well-8586850.html> Accessed May 1, 2020. ↩
Will Oremus, “Findbostonbombers: Reddit vs. the Media in Search for Boston Bombing Suspects,” Slate, April 18, 2013. <https://slate.com/technology/2013/04/findbostonbombers-reddit-vs-the-media-in-search-for-boston-bombing-suspects.html> Accessed May 1, 2020. ↩
Klein, Why We're Polarized, 50 ↩