Kylie Stoltzfus
Staff Writer

We are experiencing a time of heightened political polarization, combined with an unrelenting news cycle. We have more information at our fingertips than during any other period of history. Combine this greater accessibility with a presidential election, and you are bound to see impacts rippling across our culture. The Pew Research Center released a study this summer, citing that social media has become one of the most common avenues for American news consumption. 

“Even as Americans who primarily turn to social media for political news are less aware and knowledgeable about a wide range of events and issues in the news, they are more likely than other Americans to have heard about a number of false or unproven claims,” according to the study.

This is a bipartisan factor in information consumption, leading to high levels of contradiction in the information consumed by American voters. By the sheer level of information being published on social media platforms, combined with the ability for anyone to write and share their opinions, it is no surprise that we see inaccurate information go viral. 

As Nov. 3 draws near, concerns grow over how social media may impact the 2020 presidential election. “We’ve had elections before where we’ve had to wait to find out who won,” NPR’s Shannon Bond said. “Remember back in 2000, the Bush vs Gore fight that dragged on more than a month after election day. There wasn’t Twitter and Facebook 20 years ago. Delayed (election) results would offer even more opportunity to cast doubt on the outcome and to amplify that doubt using social media.” 

This leads to the question of what it looks like to be well informed,while sorting through a seemingly partisan press with a massive amount of questionable claims.

Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox, released a book earlier this year called Why We’re Polarized, where he discusses the causes of political polarization that currently face our nation. “The political media is biased, but not toward the left or right so much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational,” Kline writes. “It is biased toward the political stories and figures who activate our identities, because it is biased toward and dependent on the fraction of the country with the most intense political identities.

When our debates turn into pure sport and our political climate turns to chaos, what are we doing to move the needle forward in our democracy? How is this leading to anything, but more strongly cemented division and undecided voters’ decisions being based on cosmetics and performance? 

“The news media isn’t just an actor in politics. It’s arguably the most powerful actor in politics. It’s the primary intermediary between what politicians do and what the public knows,” Klein said. 

For many of us, this may only be our first or second presidential voting opportunity. This democracy is ours now. As young people, we have a voice on the issues that matter to us and the direction that our country is heading. This is a responsibility that extends far beyond the walls of social media, the voting booth, and far beyond 2020. 

I want to believe that America can be great at navigating challenging discussions and differing opinions. But, the events of last week’s presidential debate made clear to me the harsh reality we are facing in our country. I believe this starts by getting out of our bubbles of likemindedness and learning to practice empathy. It starts small, such as getting involved at a local organizing group or charity that works toward a cause you care about. It may just be by having a conversation with that one relative who has a different political opinion from you.

In my opinion, bridging this division requires getting out in our communities and discovering what the needs are. What are the issues that break our heart and build us up? Where are the areas that need improvement? Where are the injustices? What is working? 

Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying that everything is relative and political affiliations don’t matter. Just the opposite, as we do need firm beliefs and opinions regarding what matters to us as both individuals and community members. However, we also must understand that our opinions and beliefs come with baggage. We do not pull our opinions out of thin air. They are built over the course of time, within the context of our personal experiences, challenges, and successes. Our political beliefs are the result of our experiences, our parents, our childhoods, and our culture. These beliefs are also influenced by our privilege in the system or our lack of privilege. Our ability to navigate the systems that are set in place, or the way they leave us oppressed and vulnerable. 

I would venture to say that we do not vote by chance. Even if our understanding of politics and policy is limited, we still vote based on factors of context and issues that resonate with our own life experiences. We must have our convictions, our opinions, our personal beliefs on what is important. We can call out injustice and fight for freedom and equity, while still holding empathy for the people on the other side of the aisle. We must continue to see each other as human. 

I know for a fact that I have much more to learn about navigating our political landscape. This may be a simplistic view of politics, but in this moment, what more can we do?  Change of almost any kind requires a long view of time – but we can begin to build the future we want for our country, for our families, and for communities. Register to vote by October 19 by visiting www.votespa.com. Change starts right here, and right now.