The Privatized Public Opinion: Civic Literacy and Media Literacy

What came first: the polarization or the algorithms?

By Nikki Cohen

Presidential Twitter beef, advertisements that seem to read our minds, and breaking news that reaches opposite ends of the world in a split second: we have become desensitized to the ways in which the media mercilessly constructs reality. By absorbing an unrestricted flow of information daily, biases solidify without conscious recognition. Our biases are then preyed upon by algorithms that tailor news and media intake specifically to one's interests, and thus perpetuates the divides that threaten to tear our democracy apart. Along with the ability to legitimately and physically “unfollow” the opposition, facts are filtered to satisfy our own definitions of truth. In today’s state of political polarization, one woman’s fake news is another woman’s actuality.

Prior to the 1980s, Americans got their news intake in a controlled, twice a day dosage. Limited airtime drove the news cycle more towards fact-based reporting, with little time left for stories cloaked in opinions and party politics. That is, until 1980 when Ted Turner founded the first 24-hour news station, Cable Network Network, better known today as CNN. Now able to cover a greater variety of topics and break the news in real-time, CNN could satisfy their audiences’ hunger for knowledge as well as entertainment. When competitors Fox News and MSNBC established themselves in the 1990s, 24 news stations’ main priority became maintaining viewership, leading to a de-emphasis of journalistic standards. And with the rise of social media in the 21st century, anyone can be the reporter now; the internet gives every individual a platform to express their opinions and to spread resonating content. While this facilitates communication and connection, the constant stream of information can be dangerously taken out of context if not read objectively. 

From prisons to education and everything in between, the United States’ capitalistic system favors privatization. The media is not excluded from such profit-seeking behaviors. Privatization of the media creates an incentive to subjugate the masses. Curating content for specific audiences creates a positive feedback loop where socio-political messaging influences political divides, leading to increased uptake of polarized news and thus perpetuating the media’s influence on public opinion. In order to gain viewership, and thus increase profits, media companies use tactics such as intentional messaging to feed into what an audience wants to believe. Something as mundane as a one-word difference can transform the entire meaning of a headline: Where Fox News describes the recent civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd as “rioting,” CNN refers to the same instances as “protesting.” Though the channels are reporting on the same news, the lens by which they appeal to their audiences drastically contrast. 

The exploitation of public opinion is not a new concept in politics. When George Gallup created the first political poll in 1932, he intended for Americans to be the determinants of their own democracy. But as polling became a hallmark of political campaigning over the last century, algorithms and targeted advertisements followed in suit. With our overconsumption of social media today, we are constantly barraged with exposure to certain candidates, ideologies, and political propaganda. Such exposure makes public opinion dangerously malleable, as exemplified by the Cambridge Analytica scandal that broke in 2018. An ex-employee of the political consulting company blew the whistle on their unethical data breaching that swayed the 2016 US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, as well as the UK’s decision to pass Brexit. Cambridge Analytica essentially took user data– every click, swipe, and scroll–  from Facebook in order to profile American voters based on personality. With a heavy focus on swing states and centric voters, Cambridge Analytica then aggressively targeted Americans with polarizing content and fear-mongering tactics in order to sway their votes right. This large-scale psychological manipulation molded American voters’ worlds into the way that the company intended. The implications of this privacy violation are simply unquantifiable.    

In the age of selfies and status updates, it is hardly a surprise that data is considered a more valuable resource than oil. After four years of suffering the repercussions of mishandling data, it is as evident as ever that we must tend to our media intake analytically and inquisitively. In order to be civically literate, it is not enough to just be informed; instead, as active participants in democracy, we must consider the power of multiple perspectives when we produce, read, and share information online. Our democracy has been through hell and back with such an erratic political climate, but as the future leaders of this system, it is our responsibility as young people to use the media to our advantage and not to our demise. We must consciously challenge the propaganda we consume on a daily basis in order to be responsible citizens and knowledgeable voters.