2066 history exam: How the media polarised major parties

The trend towards simplicity obscured the gravity of political crises, writes Sam Wilkin
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This essay was written in response to Gideon Rachman’s invitation to readers to sit his ‘2066 history exam’. Of 170 entries, the FT is publishing the best five (see panel for the others). This piece addresses the question: Why was the rise of social media so disruptive to conventional politics?

The rise of social media in the first half of this century had dramatic consequences for all aspects of life, but it is perhaps in politics that its influence has been most profound. The emergence of a more polarised politics, in which identity and instinct mattered more than principles and facts, mirrored similar developments in online publishing and was driven in large part by the emergence of new media platforms.

From its earliest days, the growing dominance of social media placed two demands on information. First, it had to be concise and simple, as readers’ screens and attention spans shrank. Second, it had to be shareable to generate impact and revenue. These demands led news publications to focus on shallow and emotive content likely to trend on social platforms. While some outlets maintained budgets for agenda-setting investigations, the daily business of explanatory reporting fell by the wayside.

The rapid growth of social news did not lead people to read more widely but rather created feedback loops in which groups tended to share — and therefore see — only the stories that reinforced their narratives. Of course, the previous era’s newspaper editors had also maintained an editorial line, but most of them at least upheld basic standards of balance. The algorithms that replaced them did not.

It was not long before politics began to follow a similar path. After several decades of battling for the centre and tinkering with economic policy, major parties in western democracies fell increasingly under the influence of their radical fringes. While the 2008 economic crisis and various strands of globalisation had a part in this, it was the changing media landscape that played a dominant role in amplifying radical voices, relegating facts and rallying voters behind once-unelectable candidates. These trends began to deliver dramatic consequences in 2016, when Britain voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump came within a whisker of the US presidency.

On several occasions, the journalistic trend towards simplicity obscured the seriousness of political crises. In Britain, most publications began referring to the “post-Brexit” era as soon the vote was cast, implying that a modest fall in the pound might be the extent of the fallout. That lack of urgency precluded a political reversal until years after the divorce was completed, by which time the British economy had sustained far more serious damage.

As political crises mounted, more voters retreated into online filter bubbles that offered easy scapegoats for their growing economic insecurity. Analysis of social media posts shortly after the 2021 recession shows a sharp rise in negative mentions of “billionaires”, “robots”, “migrants”, and “Muslims”. Interestingly, such mentions did not subside after most economies returned to growth the following year.

It was in this tense milieu that SafeSpace was founded in 2023, promising users a platform to message friends and share news under the protection of software that filtered out all offensive content. It soon built up a large and enthusiastic membership on university campuses: one early adopter said SafeSpace had “reclaimed the comments section”. But it garnered just as many critics, who accused it of blocking legitimate debates; some alleged that it failed to filter out hate speech that came from within protected groups.

Two years later, a group of students created Trigr to combat what they called SafeSpace’s “regressive thought policing”. Billed as a social platform where any view could be aired, Trigr in reality became a refuge for anyone excluded by SafeSpace, and an echo-chamber of radical rightwing thought. While the site upheld its pledge not to ban any users, rampant harassment drove away all but the most combative members of the left.

By the late 2020s, the rivalry between SafeSpace and Trigr users was playing out in the real world. Universities came under pressure to offer segregated accommodation for users of the two networks, and a survey of American SafeSpace users in 2027 found only 17 per cent would consider dating someone with an active Trigr account.

Inevitably, major political parties began to align themselves with these powerful voting blocs: electoral strategy shifted away from courting centrists, whose numbers were dwindling, and towards maximising turnout among supporters. Well-followed social media users became hugely influential, particularly in intraparty politics, and could swing a nomination contest with a single meme. As such, many candidates made their campaigns fully native to social platforms, giving rise to policy listicles and endorsements by celebrity cats.

The rise of social media can therefore be seen as the primary driver behind the emergence of radical virocracy as today’s dominant political paradigm. As people spent more time in self-selecting groups online, they lost the traditions of debate and compromise that had characterised the previous era. The movement of news on to social platforms took this trend further, shuttering a crucial window on the wider world and setting the scene for today’s political divisions.

The writer is a journalist based in Dubai

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