Featured photo: “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey 2016” by DonkeyHotey, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Over the past decade, technology has changed how Americans engage in the political process. Social media not only increases access to information, but presents an array of community-oriented platforms for people to interact with politicians and discuss current issues. The arenas of public debate and political discourse have expanded to include live Twitter Q&A sessions and Reddit threads where users can speak their minds with limited social accountability.
In an open discussion about the roles traditional and social media play in shaping the way Washingtonians engage politics and understand policy, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center facilitated an enlightening discussion about ways to involve emerging leaders in civil public discourse.
The confirmation bias trap
Throughout the discussion, the moderator challenged attendees to examine how technology changed the way we individually talk about policy issues in our local communities. That prompted a discussion about how social media has changed the meaning of civil debate, and how it will affect the next generation of leaders and the way they talk about democracy. Guests were encouraged to voice their differing stances on how technology has affected people’s desire to understand others who don’t share their political views.
“One of the most interesting challenges posed at the collaborative leadership event was when William Ruckelshaus encouraged us to engage with people on the opposite political spectrum from one’s self,” said Jill Reddish, a Master of Communications candidate in the Communication Leadership program. “We grappled with how social media can facilitate talking across differences, and I and many others wondered if Americans are equipped with the tools not just for debate, but for listening to each other.”
I and many others wondered if Americans are equipped with the tools not just for debate, but for listening to each other. — Jill Reddish, CommLead cohort 14
Research has shown that Millennials and Generation Z are increasingly relying on social networking sites’ personalized newsfeeds as their primary source for political and government news. Because social media platforms allows users to curate news streams, people might begin to favor information that reinforce pre-existing beliefs, resulting in their devaluation of alternate viewpoints, a sociological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. During the discussion, several speakers posited that people’s general lack of exposure to opposing ideas contributes to the polarizing political climate.
Social media as a tool to expand horizons
Numerous views expressed during the 90 minute event centered around the theme of exploring ways to encourage young leaders to begin having constructive conversations about public policy and the growing political polarization in America. Several students pointed out that social media may be the only opportunity for underrepresented groups to ensure that their opinions are accurately portrayed and considered by decision-makers. “Part of the issue related to engaging more people in civil discourse or difficult topics is the challenge of empowering people, particularly women and people of color, with the knowledge and confidence to engage in difficult discussions, ” said Viviana Garza, MPA Candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. “We need to begin focusing on using social media for targeted engagement and empowerment efforts to promote productive discourse.”
Ms. Garza went on to say that expanding the definition of what a “leader’” looks like could be a positive first step, and give people from all backgrounds the confidence to engage multiple perspectives with respect.
Learning to listen
With the 2016 election well underway, the event could not have been more timely. Since Americans no longer have a shared vision of what democracy looks like, we must learn to listen, consider and respect one another’s views in order build a shared vision of our future. While I cannot speak for everyone in attendance, the discussion prompted a reexamination of my online interactions with people who vocalize political opinions different from mine.
Since Americans no longer have a shared vision of what democracy looks like, we must learn to listen, consider and respect one another’s views in order build a shared vision of our future.
The William D. Ruckelshaus Center should be applauded for creating offline opportunities for meaningful conversations between state leaders and young professionals. Resources should be invested to equip the next generation of leaders with tools to collaboratively problem solve policy issues, and discussions like the one hosted by the Ruckelshaus Center are just one way of combating political polarization.
To learn more, visit the Ruckelshaus Center, which is a partnership between Washington State University and the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, visit their website.