Political Polarisation: The U.S Capitol and Beyond

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Speaking to experts, Brianna Walsh looks at the threat of political polarisation to understand better its roots, and its reach.

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” 

In hindsight, Donald Trump’s tweet from December 19th may trivialise reality. Five people lost their lives to the riot in Washington D.C., a storming of the seat of the U.S government to contest the election of presidential candidate Joe Biden. It was a protest against the electoral system that many insisted served to undermine democracy, rather than defend it. The coup was understood to not only consist of Trump supporters and the political right, but extremists, white supremacists and new age conspiracy theorists. Even so, fake news continues to circulate ascribing responsibility to left-wing, anti-fascist movement Antifa. 

One “wild” tweet later, Trump faces impeachment and another Senate judgment, this time under the charge of inciting violence. Just under a week after the incident occurred, the spearheads of social media, from Facebook to Instagram, Twitter and Twitch, stripped the president of his online political power. Suddenly, Trump was not the only one under trial. Across the very platforms they created, social media companies encountered accusations of instigation too. Irish disinformation analyst Donie O’Sullivan went viral. The concept of political polarisation trended. While the world shrinks within the remit of the internet, never has the question of its impact upon the global societies been so under discussion. 

Speaking to The University Observer entirely on her own behalf, Steffi Singh is a writer, advocate and Regional Security Project Coordinator for Facebook. Comparing the current day to Nazi Germany and its utilisation of mass media to propagate political ideology, she inquires: “If you removed the radio, or the cinema reel… a megaphone – just like today’s Facebook or Twitter – would the outcome have been different? In my historical belief – no.” 

For Singh, the symptoms of extremist violence seemingly spurred by online rhetoric are much more multifaceted. She describes the roots of such conflict, citing the socio-economic inequalities that persist in the United States, the gap that continues to widen between rich and poor, “division dependent on where you’re born”. 

Dr Tristan Sturm is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Natural and Built Environments at Queens University Belfast. In the same vein, he argues that the “whole thing is about white supremacy”. Detailing the historical context of American political culture and society, it is submitted that the climate today is a mere “extension of the Civil War”. The events in Capitol Hill are not far removed from the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, wherein a legally elected Fusionist government in North Carolina was ousted. The “race riot” was originally attributed to Black people, before further investigation unveiled a violent coup d’état by white supremacists to overthrow the duly elected, desegregated administration. Facebook did not exist in the late 19th century. Many express concern that the attitudes of the time, however, may prevail in a society where racism is so structurally embedded. Dr Sturm describes how those in power fail to recognise their own privilege and begin to “point fingers” and call “voter fraud” when they “lose their white grip on the United States of America”. 

Both Singh and Sturm highlight the role of education as another of the “milieu of factors that lead to this insurrection”. They characterise the U.S system as plagued by hierarchical restrictions and division through the “exorbitant” privatisation of educational programmes. As Dr Sturm bluntly puts it; “none of those people protesting there were going to split the atom”. The lack of opportunity to learn vital skills such as critical, contextual thinking in an already unequal society can credibly serve to polarise politics further. 

The events at the Washington Capitol have spurred comparisons of the U.S with other countries around the globe. Europe Correspondent for The Irish Times Naomi O’Leary analogizes her experience covering the Irish election in Cork last year with images from Washington this month; “Fine Gael were holding an election event where protestors infiltrated and ambushed Simon Coveney when he was leaving - it’s the same tactic of protesters bursting in physically to disrupt events which are to do with the normal process of democracy”. 

“There is a feeling that Ireland is a bit different in terms of its political culture… [but] nowhere is immune to this… journalists like Donie O’Sullivan have done a great job in documenting how the media we have facilitates extremism and baseless conspiracies…” 

While social, economic and political contexts vary, it’s becoming increasingly evident that media is an adaptable force for good and evil. Dr Sturm cites Covid-19 conspiracies in the UK and Ireland to argue that as misinformation continues to disseminate throughout the world, “certain things will resonate with people differently” depending on their geopolitical position. Less the underlying force, media is more the great facilitator for humans hiding behind a screen. 

Looking forward, diverse solutions seem imperative in tackling the true complexity of this problem. As the “gatekeepers” of social media, there is certainly a role for companies like Google, Amazon and Apple in restricting apps such as Parler, or for Facebook and Twitter to moderate their platforms. At the same time, it is noteworthy that “people have been hammering over and over” for this kind of reform and yet, it is only achieving some sort of fruition at the “culmination of violence and the end of Trump’s presidency”. Dr Sturm is curious to see how political influence and profit will further inform these kinds of corporate decisions. 

Similar concerns arise around the democratic capacity of companies to effectively govern social and political issues through such measures. Singh emphasises the importance of education and accountability. 

“Removing the medium doesn’t change the messaging. The onus shouldn’t be on private entities to put rules in place that have a political and social impact. That’s on the government.”

“It’s a business and it’s there to make money. If it wasn’t social media, it would be newspapers – and without it, there’s a lot of issues we may not even be talking about.” Indeed, social momentum in Ireland is perhaps most powerful across Twitter feeds. What analysts fear is missing is the political will to implement legislation that will crackdown on media platforms and misinformation. On the flipside is the debate as to whether it is legitimate to expect private companies to take responsibility in the setting of public systems? 

It could be summarised in a few characters, one single tweet; Inequality, disparity, supremacy, division. Until addressed, respect for the rule of law may feel far away, be it online, in Washington or further afield.