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Is Social Media to Blame for Polarization?

Prerevolutionary epochs are characterized, in part, by a thirst for ideas that can explain the impasse of society. No longer satisfied to let politics continue as usual, more and more people look for an explanation and a perspective that can offer a way out. This explains the renewed interest in socialism across the world.

Marxism explains that, in the final analysis, consciousness is determined by the material conditions of a given epoch. Living in an epoch in which capitalism is totally incapable of offering a future or providing decent living standards, it is increasingly evident that there is a “growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust,” as Engels put it. This leads to a questioning of society’s dominant ideologies.

The central ideology of capitalist society is liberalism, which accompanied the capitalist revolutions of the past. At that time, the rising capitalist class waged a revolutionary ideological struggle against the theology and property relations of the Middle Ages. In the context of feudal society, liberalism, with its clarion call for truth, reason, and justice, represented a huge step forward in humanity’s intellectual development. However, like the system it bases itself on, it now plays a regressive role.

The viewpoint of liberalism, and thus, the interests of capitalism, is put forth by the journalists, academics, and economists of “official” society, who, because these institutions are privately owned or operated by the state in the interest of the ruling class, organically emerge as faithful ideological servants of capitalism. Faced with the undeniable political polarization we see today, they, too, are forced to come up with an explanation. But as they do not start from a class perspective, and ultimately seek to defend the existing social relations, they put forth the now frequently-repeated argument: social media enables those with “extreme” or “unreasonable” beliefs to spread their ideas more efficiently, thus giving rise to polarization.

As it is the bourgeois media’s go-to explanation for any instance of polarization, it is possible to find this argument in some form or another applied to virtually everything. Speaking on the New Zealand Mosque shooting, Kevin Roose on the New York Times’ podcast The Daily said: “There’s an entire generation of people who have been exposed to radical extremist politics online,” and later, “these platforms played a pivotal role, have played, are playing a pivotal role in how these extremist groups gather momentum and share their ideas, and coalescence into real movements, and grow.”

Writing in support of the Sri Lankan government’s decision to shut down social media in the wake of the devastating Easter bombings, New York Times tech columnist Kara Swisher concludes, “social media has blown the lids off controls that have kept society in check. These platforms give voice to everyone, but some of those voices are false or, worse, malevolent, and the companies continue to struggle with how to deal with them.”

Although these recent examples show liberalism’s response to the rise of far-right sentiments, we can expect similar arguments about the accelerating polarization to the left—and that the left will be increasingly targeted for censorship.

Smartphone Social MediaDesperately seeking an explanation, an aspect of social life that has only recently emerged is chosen to serve as the scapegoat for the problems of capitalism. / Image: Pixabay

As the social media argument is not so much a worked-out theory as it is a post-hoc rationalization, exact manifestations vary, blaming misinformation, algorithmic manipulation, lack of face-to-face contact, “extremism” and “tribalism” in the abstract, and/or the “echo chamber” nature of social media. Desperately seeking an explanation, an aspect of social life that has only recently emerged is chosen to serve as the scapegoat for the problems of capitalism.

But we are compelled to ask: How did political polarization arise before the internet? Is the internet the first medium to allow for misinformation? What is driving people to be so adamant about their beliefs on the internet? Most importantly, where do these ideas spring from in the first place?

To understand this, we must turn briefly to philosophy. Liberalism stems from the philosophical trend of idealism, which posits that ideas are primary and exist independently of the material world. In the case of liberalism, much importance is given to the individual’s responsibility to make an informed, rational decision based on the abstract ideas of truth, justice, and reason. History is seen as a progression of ideas, both good and bad, and our time is regarded as one in which many have fallen victim to “tribalism.” Instead of looking for a material basis for these ideas, the vehicle that serves to disseminate them is blamed.

Marxism, philosophical materialism, finds the source of ideas in the concrete relations humans have with material reality. Though Marxists also strive to make informed, rational decisions, we do not see the development of ideas as the driving force in history, and we believe concepts of truth, justice, and reason always have a material basis, and thus, change continuously throughout history. From a study of history from a materialist perspective, it is clear that polarization is a feature that always accompanies a societal crisis. As capitalism is passing through the biggest crisis in its history, it is no surprise that polarization is rising.

It is true that for various reasons, the internet allows people to get exposure to ideas that they would not have otherwise come across. But for an idea to convince someone of its correctness, it must appear to have a basis in their lived experience. It is also true that modern social life is heavily refracted through social media. But as Hegel explained, historical necessity expresses itself through accident; if the internet were not around to mediate these political interactions, they would simply happen elsewhere.

There is a small but growing far-right fringe whose ideas are cynically fomented by bourgeois politicians to divide the working class. The material basis that allows these ideas to take root is the crisis of capitalism. But beneath the surface, left polarization is also occurring, and the balance of forces is very much on the side of the working class. We are confident that as the power of organized labor fighting for a socialist program is increasingly realized, it will steamroll these right-wing fringes into obscurity, clarifying the real division in society: the division between workers and capitalists.

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