Polarizing Newsfeeds: The dangerous effects of personalized, unchecked social media content

As a result of biased viewpoints, social media users are quick to follow the mainstream, often promoting out-of-context, polarizing opinions that cultivate accusations instead of discussions.

Over two months ago, the words “xenophobic,” “racist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic” and more infiltrated our newsfeeds following Trump’s surprising win. While these labels placed on Trump and his supporters may be true to some extent, they spread more hatred and division. Political correctness contributes to this heightened sensitivity and intolerance. Social media also enables the quick spread of polarizing opinions. But the impetuous choices social media users make largely contribute to the development of extreme views.

Recently, an incident surrounding YouTube stars Adam Saleh and Slim Albaher was brought to attention on social media. The YouTubers claimed to have been removed from a Delta Airlines flight after speaking Arabic. Saleh posted the filmed incident to his twitter account, which garnered 814K retweets. He can be seen complaining to other passengers and flight crew, resisting being taken off the plane and calling others “racist.”

“Six white people against us bearded men…You guys are racist,” Saleh said in his video.

If there were truly passengers who felt “uncomfortable” after hearing Arabic, then they acted upon their fears and wrongfully thought the worst out of the situation. But that by itself is not enough to justify their being removed from the flight. What added to the heat of the moment was Saleh’s resistance to cooperation, disruptiveness, and disrespect—the stronger reason for their removal. Delta Airlines later added that their removal was due to their “provocative behavior, including shouting” that was disruptive. The article was then updated with statements that recognized Saleh’s history of pranking videos and his possible fabrication of the incident. One publication even claimed that the incident was fake, stating that “it is not possible to verify his account of what happened to lead to his removal from the flight.”

But regardless of what the reality of the situation was, Saleh’s and social media users’ reactions have been out of hand. Coming to the conclusion that Delta Airlines is racist exacerbates the situation and fosters polarizing views. The video he uploaded is out of context—people only see his defensive remarks but not the truth of what actually triggered the situation. His words have been irrationally reverberated by angry twitter retweets, spreading anger and resistance. Mainstream social media users acted out on the assumption that Delta Airlines and other passengers are racist.

Social media users’ reactions often oversimplify issues and spread hatred. The mainstream should promote discussion and question the validity of extreme viewpoints, and give the benefit of the doubt—not spread insults or come to conclusions.

The Conversation, an independent academic publication, analyzes how social media users can quickly develop polarizing opinions.

“Polarization happens when information is filtered to such an extent that we are only exposed to the voices we are already willing to listen to, the sources we are willing to read and the people we are willing to talk to,” The Conversation states.

As young adults surrounded by the accessibility of social media, our reactions are tailored to our inner circle of our social media newsfeeds. We are more likely to develop polarized opinions when the friends we follow, pages we like, and videos we watch do too. Facebook constantly tailors an individual’s newsfeed to their activity, which can promote like-minded views and bandwagon behavior. Social media sites are partly to blame for this. But users are too. Everyone has a choice to make regarding the material we are exposed to and the way we handle our reactions. It’s extremely easy to spew negative comments and hurl insults at one another when it seems like the mainstream is doing that too. What’s not easy is pushing aside immediate emotions, recognizing possible holes in the mainstreams’ arguments and considering any missing context.

Another video that recently took hold of Facebook users’ attention showed a woman yelling derogatory comments toward two Mexican shoppers in a mall. The person who uploaded the video to Facebook allegedly sought “to expose this racism in America/Louisville.” But this video—also out of context—does not just “expose” the racism existent in some areas of the nation. It also sharpens divisions. The woman has been permanently banned from that mall, so her behavior has already been deemed unacceptable by a public institution—hateful social media comments don’t need to make the situation worse. Disparaging the woman on social media blows up unacceptable actions of someone that is not representative of the majority. By hoping to “expose” these people, the issue is unnecessarily intensified. It’s made a bigger problem than it initially was.

There is danger in generalizing and coming to conclusions about people we don’t like. Though social media makes it harder to see diversity in opinions, social media users must slow down in spreading intolerance. And calling people racist. While highly racist and discriminatory people exist, they are a minority. We can choose not to turn our attention to them.

As for the many reasonable people out there, let’s propagate discussions instead of accusations, widen our range of view by diversifying news sources on social media and think critically before hopping on a polarizing bandwagon.





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