Political Socialization, Increasing Polarization

    Information distribution has evolved in conjunction with the development of technology throughout history. Dating back to the earliest news pamphlets shiting into newspapers, the revolutionary invention of the radio paving way for the development of television, and even the shift from home-bound telephones to mobile devices have changed the way information is shared with the general public. The concept of political socialization has been studied for decades leading up to today’s current political climate. In an earlier study by Herbert Hyman (1959) political socialization is conceptualized in three dimensions. The first dimension is participation or involvement in politics, the second being radical or conservative goals, and the third being democratic or authoritarian forms. A more recent study by Greenstein (1969) defines political socialization as “political learning” where people develop attitudes, values, beliefs, opinions, and behavior in the process of becoming active citizens. 

    In short, political socialization is the process by which individuals learn and internalize political views, influencing their perceptions of society and government.

    In the context of political socialization, influencing factors are referred to as “agents.” These agents include parents and family members, friends, teachers, coworkers, and media. Agents can influence others by conveying knowledge or opinions that shape other’s understanding of their environment and have the power to influence people’s perceptions about political ideologies as well as other individuals. Arguably the most influential of these agents are family and media. This finding is to be expected given the amount of time that children spend with their parents and family members and how they can adapt their same world views by repeated exposure to discussions regarding the subject. Media, on the other hand, has become an important agent of political socialization because they host a great deal of political content and require active engagement from citizens. Celebrities, public government officials, and even ex-presidents have turned to social media to effectively communicate with the public, utilizing the instantaneous nature of information distribution through media to their advantage.

    With the increase of consumers as media has evolved, social media companies referred to as Big Tech oversees the media of which users consume daily. These sites include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. After the realization that this could turn into a source of profit, social networks prioritize which content a user sees in their feed by the likelihood that they’ll want to see it. This is referred to as the algorithm, an automatic calculation that sorts posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of publishing time. The amount of time we spend on our phones scrolling through Instagram is solely attributed to the algorithm providing us with content relevant to the posts we like and videos we watch. The information we consume is information the algorithm knows we want to see and it’s not unusual that people are not recommended posts with opposing views or stories because the algorithm knows it would be less likely to keep someone online on their platform. The more time a user spends on a social media site the more money is generated for social networking companies, monetizing user viewership and recommending content to keep users online if it means earning more money. Criticisms of these companies and the algorithm include the increasing influence of social media in politics, with posts and news stories often omitting information and context to push an agenda.

    Due to the facilitation of information distribution, fake news, and external environmental influences, Americans’ feelings toward members of the other political party have worsened over time. The rapidly growing gap between Democrats and Republicans has become more evident with the usage of social media and how people, especially young voters, have been shaped by this ever-present tool into following the ideas of either political party. More than ever, Americans endorse their party’s stance across all issues with very little room for middle ground, with the sentiment amongst those from either party regarding each other is that of demonization and ridicule. Social media sites are often blamed for contributing to the rising political polarization in the United States by creating “echo chambers” (largely attributed to the algorithm) that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. These partisan divisions not only impede compromise in the design and implementation of social policies but have also had far-reaching consequences for the effective function of democracy. It is ultimately futile to pin this issue on one aspect of modern society when the problem of political division has now become a deep-seated, fundamental issue in America that merits an open, extensive conversation.

Works Cited

Hyman, H. (1959). Political socialization. Free Press.

Greenstein, F. I., Children and Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969).

Orlowski, Jeff, et al. The Social Dilemma, Netflix, 9 Sept. 2020.

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