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Opinion: Simplifying of news through repost culture harms political discourse

(Ingrid Leng/Daily Bruin staff)

By Miu Kikuchi

June 10, 2024 9:21 p.m.

Israel and Palestine. Russia and Ukraine. China and Taiwan. With numerous conflicts around the world, there has been some uncertainty for many young people about how to help.

As growing distress meets increasing media activity, social media platforms have become saturated with political news posts and infographics, inundating the feeds of millions of users. With just a few taps on an Instagram story, one can cultivate an image of appearing civically engaged to the public.

However, despite its benign or even virtuous facade, reposting political information comes with consequences. In fact, repost culture may contribute to the formation of incomplete or even distorted narratives on critical issues due to the inherently limiting features of posts on platforms like Instagram.

Resorting to social media to share information leads to the author’s priority being placed on sensationalization to quickly grab viewers’ attention. Posts often cover a fragment of the entire story or fixate on a current incident, sacrificing context and likely spreading misinformation. Nevertheless, context is arguably the most essential aspect of understanding the magnitude and implications of political events.

“Social media doesn’t allow one to examine those issues with the sensitivity and complexity that they deserve to be examined with,” said Jean Pierre Etcheverry, a second-year political science student and vice president of outreach at UCLA’s chapter of BridgeUSA, a club focused on facilitating political discourse around polarizing topics.

For instance, many reposts about the war in Gaza have not included the extensive history between Israel and Palestine, which the Council on Foreign Relations states dates back to the 19th century. Viewers who are solely aware of the Oct. 7 attack by militant group and Palestinian political party Hamas may come to different conclusions than others who contextualize the attack with the numerous failed negotiations between them and Israel and Israel’s ongoing militarization against Palestine. This background adds due nuance and allows for a holistic understanding of what has been at stake for both parties.

The social media algorithm adapts to users’ repeated interactions with posts that reaffirm their beliefs, which promotes distorted narratives. This only amplifies confirmation bias and reinforces myopic attitudes.

“By default, one is in an echo chamber, and the only way to get out of this echo chamber is for them to actively pursue and understand other points of view,” said Anthony Perez-Tejeda, a fourth-year political science student and the president of Bruin Republicans. “For the time being, they’re just stuck in the same place.”

According to a 2021 study, confirmation bias and echo chambers can work together to stimulate social media induced polarization, making it even harder for people to challenge their preconceived notions.

Rachel Ketai, a lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs, said she was concerned over the prevalence of the demonization of opposing sides. This phenomenon leads to the adoption of increasingly extreme positions, contributing to further demonization.

“Toxic rhetoric fuels toxic rhetoric,” Ketai said. “It’s hurting people. It’s hurting conversations. It’s hurting communities. And if we can practice more ethical rhetoric, we can be more ethical people and we can invite more ethical responses.”

Beyond repost culture skewing public opinion and making conversations unproductive, it normalizes performance activism.

Stuart Soroka, a professor in the departments of communication and political science, said the content we repost is influenced both by what we find important and impression management, which refers to intentionally creating an online persona.

There may be a conformity aspect to impression management, suggesting that people are conflating the popularity of a stance with its morality. However, just because a belief is widely held, this does not confirm its validity.

Hopping on a bandwagon can hinder more legitimate forms of activism. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Instagram users reposted a black square with the BLM hashtag – known as Blackout Tuesday – which may have clogged the passage of important information regarding the protest.

Despite these shortcomings, repost culture has proven to foster undeniable benefits. The Washington Post, one of the most subscribed to newspapers, publishes around 1,200 stories, graphics and videos everyday. With a high influx of information, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the fast pace of today’s political climate, and reposting news allows significant stories that may have gotten lost within thousands of others to be read and known.

Moreover, echo chambers created by the social media algorithm can be used to cultivate a sense of community.

“There are clearly advantages to facilitating connections between people with similar views, particularly when those people with similar views are geographically distributed,” Soroka said.

While it is beneficial to engage with individuals across the globe, this does not have to solely occur within distant communities.

Jenelle Camarena, a third-year American Indian studies student and a native graduation coordinator for the American Indian Student Association, said her reposts about the Standing Rock Indian Reservation led to her high school classmates asking her for ways to get involved.

Reposts can be a first step, but we should not rely on them for societal progress. With the presidential election coming up, further steps are required to improve student activism. In order to mitigate the negative effects of reposts, social media users must be more cautious with their use.

“Pause before reposting,” Soroka said. “Think about whether what you’re circulating is accurate or whether what you’re circulating is incendiary or uninformative.”

This sentiment is especially true with the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence and growing room for spreading misinformation.

“How will we know if what’s being shared was even written by a human? Is it actually representative of the source it is being attributed to?” Ketai said. “We’re already at a place where we don’t trust each other’s facts.”

Additionally, we must regularly bring activism outside the limited confines of social media and hold in-person events that promote multifaceted frameworks. But this is only effective if the majority participates.

While sharing online has its ample benefits, there are more productive ways to advocate for a cause than reposting on social media.

So, the next time a conflict trends and reposting seems like an easy way to assert your political stance, resist the urge and take a moment to reflect.

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