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  • Writer's pictureCaterina Sullivan

Social Media's Role in Polarising Politics and Political Instability

I stay active on social media for my work, but in all honesty, some days, it really gets me down.

Sure, there are some feel good stories popping up every now and then, but the number of people making pernicious comments seems to be growing, and scrolling through social media honestly deflates me.

It's my favourite hashtag to punch into a social media search bar because I love politics. Recently, I haven't been able to scroll more than 20 tweets before I've begun to wonder if I will ever make an impact in my work in sustainability when very little seems to be good enough for these people.

Politicians, at times, make mistakes. This does not mean they are fundamentally bad people. Over my career, I have met with countless politicians in Australian federal, state, territory and local government. Not once have I left a meeting thinking that anyone was a 'bad person'. Of course, there were people with whom I had differences of opinion; there were people who I felt didn't quite hear everything I had to say based on the fact my views were different to theirs. However, every single politician has treated me with respect and has showed genuine interest in developing our nation. It's just that some politicians believe developing our nation should be done differently to how others believe it should be done. It doesn't make them bad people; it just means they have a different viewpoint.

I look through the #auspol hashtag to catch up on any news that I might have somehow missed in the paper, some of the smaller-scale projects politicians are working on around the country. However, my feed is getting clogged up with hate speech about certain politicians and political parties. And a lot of it is not coming from millennials.

The majority of it seems to be coming from people middle-aged and above. In fact, it seems to be coming predominantly from white middle-aged men. Sure, you get your occasional millennial and occasional woman feeding the fiery pit of social media with a little acrimonious oil... but they are not the majority.

I often wonder how these same people would react if someone wrote something hateful about the opinions of a member of their family. Would there be outrage and disgust? Or might they realise they are the ones setting the example?

I also wonder what kind of difference these posts make. Are they getting in front of people who matter? Or are they just wasting time and cluttering the #auspol feed?

I don't claim that every post of mine has changed someone's life. However, I do know that I have a following of people who are interested in what I am doing to make a positive impact on the world. Many of my followers are taking their own steps to make a positive impact; it's a community of progress, change and inspiration. And our posts matter.

In my experience, calling a politician a 'disgrace' (which seems to be one of the words of choice) doesn't actually achieve much. It doesn't convince the politician's supporters to all of a sudden renounce their following as attacking emotive language can make people defensive quite quickly. It also doesn't make the politician reconsider their position because most of the time, they believe in the decision they have made, whether it be right or wrong.

Working relationships tend to get politicians on board. Words of encouragement, empathy for the difficult role they have to play (and it is a very difficult role), recommendations based on experience, both personal and professional - these are the tools to foster collaboration and be heard by politicians from all parties. Social media hate speech has no role to play in creating change.

More and more millennials are understanding this approach. They know that a lot of their power lies in alliances, not enemies. The positive stories and the negative stories with a positive-spin are the ones which make the most impact.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in the popularity of parties both left of Labor and right of the Coalition, parties moving further away from the centre of the political spectrum. This increase in polarising politics can be attributed in part to social media.

Overall, in Australia, the general political spectrum has moved a little more to the social and environmental left. Legislation around marriage equality and debates on renewable energy would not have been on the cards 30 years ago. For the world of sustainable development, this is a positive shift. However, there are some people who are not ready for this shift; they are the ones who have set-up, reestablished and / or expanded the support of parties further towards the right. There are also some people who believe this shift should be happening a lot faster than what it currently is, and they have set-up, re-established and / or expanded the support of parties further towards the left.

Social media is giving voices to these people on the more extreme ends of the spectrum who previously did not have a voice in traditional media. While Australia is a democratic country and it is important that our citizens' views are represented, an increased number of political parties and increased popularity in these parties can sometimes mean further political instability. Legislation can take longer to pass, especially through the Senate, as there are more points of view to consider, which requires more deliberation and possible further amendments. Additionally, we have already seen many examples over the past few years of minor parties and independents in the Senate holding the government to ransom to extract concessions according to their personal or party doctrine.

The swing voters and those who tend to favour the centre do not have as much of a voice on social media. They are more likely not to be the ones writing angry posts and calling out certain behaviours. It is those who vote for the far left or far right who tend to author these posts. This creates a bit of an 'echo chamber' as many of their friends and followers will share certain demographic traits and have some similar political views. This network then creates more and more of a stir among themselves, often believing these posts are affecting the lives of their followers more than what they are in this echo chamber. Social media can also both play on and enhance the disillusionment some Australians feel with the major parties, causing a swing towards more polarised politics.

In order to create a strong, more successful Australia, it is important that we focus on sustainable growth. We need to be solution-focused, not problem-focused. We need to talk about what we can realistically do in this country to achieve a prosperous, peaceful and protected future for all, economically, socially and environmentally. The average social media user can play their part in this by using their channels for positive change as opposed to negative name-calling. We can focus on the good things happening in the world because if our political leaders see enough support for positive movements, they might jump on board as well.


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