US is dividing, but it’s not all Twitter’s fault

By Wang Wenwen Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/28 22:18:40

By many measures, 2017 can be called the year of Twitter in the US, characterized by endless tweets from US President Donald Trump. His predecessor Barack Obama offered stern advice to those in powerful positions without mentioning Trump's name: Don't use social media to foster division.

In a BBC interview with Britain's Prince Harry that aired Wednesday, the former US president said social media is "corroding civil discourse" and that "one of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities."

It is unknown if Obama's advice was more of an implicit criticism of Trump or out of good will for his country. One thing notable is that as tweets went fast and furious during this year, Obama had three of the top 10 re-tweeted tweets. According to the top timeline statistics released by Twitter in early December, a tweet in which Obama quoted Nelson Mandela after the Charlottesville violence in August was retweeted more than 1.7 million times and was the most-liked tweet in Twitter history. Since the 2008 election, Obama has been a pacesetter using Facebook to connect with the public.

Does social media foster division in the US as Obama claimed?

The US was a nation divided long before Twitter. The two major parties disagree with each other for the sake of disagreement and voters vote not in support of their candidate, but in opposition to the other.

On racial issues, whites and blacks do not see eye to eye, not only on the internet but also in real life. A Pew poll in 2016 found that 88 percent of blacks think the country needs to do more to give blacks equal rights, while 53 percent of whites also say further changes are needed. That was how the violence unfolded in Charlottesville when white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed.

If social media did not divide America, perhaps it amplified the process. Even if President Trump stops tweeting, the divisions in US society will still exist.

The problem social media created is an epidemic of fake news. Fake news in 2016 - Pope Francis endorsing Trump for president and Ireland accepting Trump refugees from the US - generated nearly 1 million engagements on social media.

Too much fraudulent news on social media fuels chaos and stokes hatreds. Since social media has become part of people's lives and its popularity is irreversible, the question is how to manage digital communication. A responsible US government should regulate online information with the advancement of internet technologies. Such management may be at odds with free speech and affect the values of US society. It tests the wisdom of the US leadership about how to utilize social media as a tool of engagement with its people and in governing the country.

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