American Political Divide Enters Social Media

American Political Divide Enters Social Media

Political partisanship can be found in every part of society. What you say, or even what you do not say, is ripe for political criticism these days. It is no surprise then that social media, where a majority of the world devotes multiple hours each day, would be impacted, too.

America’s competing political ideologies have been debated on smart phones and computers for years. But now, the high-profile spat between President Donald Trump and Twitter may accelerate a future where social media apps are as numerous as ideological differences. There is some irony, or at least painful coincidences, that the social media platform that has largely defined the current president is now attempting to censor him.

The president has fired back at Twitter, offering a head-scratching executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is often referred to as the foundation of the modern-day internet and social media. PRI recently talked about Section 230 in a June podcast on data privacy.

Many readers have probably heard of Parler, largely the biggest benefactor of the feud between the president and Twitter and general pushback from many conservatives against social media.

Parler claims to have more than one million users. This is a drop in the bucket compared to Twitter’s 330 million active users and 500 million daily tweets, according to Omnicore. For reference, the president’s Twitter account has 82.8 million followers. Whatever your thoughts on Parler, it is one of the many niche social media apps “coming to market” at the right time, especially since the major social media platforms are largely viewed with such disdain.

Social media and the technology companies that run mobile platforms have largely lost the argument that they are a public good that brings the world together. Distrust in big tech has been documented for years.

The latest survey from the Verge, a technology news site, about sentiment toward social media technology companies and search engine provides, or “big tech,” found most Americans are skeptical of the companies. 72 percent say Facebook has too much power, 56 percent say the government should break up tech companies if they control too much of the economy, and that 51 percent say Google and YouTube should be split.

Our views of social media differ by channel. Twitter coincidentally had the highest unfavorable numbers – at 39 percent – and scored the second-lowest trust for getting information at 43 percent. Facebook was the lowest in this category at 41 percent. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon regularly had the highest favorability and approval numbers.

And we cannot write about social media without throwing in Facebook’s well-documented security and data privacy issues.

Unfortunately, social media is largely being turned inside out. What was once championed as a force for connectivity is feeding the American political partisan-industry complex.

It could also lead to greater national security threats.

TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, has rather quietly grown its user base in 2020. Chatr recently reported that TikTok was downloaded 315 million times in the first quarter of 2020. That is the most downloads of any app in any quarter, ever.

I wrote about TikTok’s run in with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States last fall. The committee, which helps monitor foreign investment in the United States, acts as a watchdog over foreign financial investments, mergers and acquisitions, and investment in American companies to ensure there are no threats to national security.

With the political sparring between Twitter, and regular questions about Facebook’s security, it is obvious that TikTok took advantage of the situation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Is it possible that TikTok, an app where you make brief “music videos” is a threat to national security? It’s unclear. But the rapid growth of foreign-owned technology company, one that could be required to hand over any data to the Chinese government because of its domestic national security laws, is something to keep an eye on.

Social media is probably entering a new phase where, instead of going on commonly used apps to post a picture or status, we could focus our attention on platforms that fit our worldview. Big tech will always have command people’s attention, but I think you will start seeing social media apps geared toward different ideologies, not just the mainstream.

Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.