By Alex Zarlengo
Why does lightning strike? The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration describes that situation where the electrical charge separation (or difference in charge) between the clouds and the earth becomes so great, that a spark is created, overcoming the capacitor that is the atmosphere in between[i]. That is to say, the clouds and earth become so polarized against each other, that this cataclysmic event of lightning eventually occurs to sort of release the tension- an inevitable moment of destructive absolution.
This is exactly what is happening to our political beliefs in the information age. Our views have become so polarized and extreme that they discharge, often as keyboard screaming matches. We’ve become enclosed in our own opinions and allow no room for discourse. Our newsfeeds become solely filled with political beliefs that only mirror our own, creating an echo chamber of the same enraged opinion that has no outlet until we somehow run into an opinion that opposes it.
We live in a country and time where increasingly polarizing news sources are slowly gathering to fever pitch, and our opinions are only making them worse. While reputable, and relatively non-biased news sources report news that typically intends to inform, smaller news outlets are the ones that seem to get shared via social media. It is here where the most damage is done. It doesn’t help the issue that we typically befriend those who share similar viewpoints, especially political ones. All of this yields a daily onslaught of reposted articles from heavily biased news sources that are skewed to one political party or another. Democrat or Republican, the echo chamber in which we’ve enclosed ourselves only serves to perpetuate our own rage against the other party.
This could be an article where reaching across party lines and having thoughtful, fact-based discussions with those whose viewpoints differ from our own is the central theme (both of which are terrific, healing notions). However, this article will focus on something far easier to master: Using reliable, non-partisan, primary or secondary sources.
Flashback to the five minutes in high school science lab when you learned what primary or secondary sources are and then quickly forgot. Or perhaps the few moments in college when you skimmed over what it meant for a study to have an accurate sample size and to scrutinize the study for test flaws or biases, operational definitions, or if the results relied on self-reported data. Understanding how studies are developed and yield data are crucial to being an accurate consumer of information. Blindly accepting what any study says simply because it confirms your viewpoint is akin to buying a product just because you really, really want it to work, despite obvious flaws in the design.
It becomes crucial in this day and age to sharply question what you are being told. If a study simply says that there was a significant difference form one group of people to another, the first question to ask oneself should be “What do the people who ran this study consider statistically significant?” “What methods did they use?” “Does the sample represent the population as a whole?” Barring a lesson in statistics, the aforementioned questions are examples of concerns one should have, as those factors may skew the results of a study. Simply reading the words “A new study says……insert conclusion you want to hear personally…” does not make something the truth, it only further confirms one’s own viewpoint. This article simply seeks to make the reader more aware of the potential that exists for studies and their results to be skewed in order to yield results that are more satisfying. Take things with a grain of salt.
What is most easily done however, in today’s sociopolitical atmosphere to know which news outlets are skewing and sensationalizing their news to satisfy the notions of their audience. Many news sources have heavy left or right-leaning biases which only deepen the divide between Democrats and Republicans. Such sites demonize one another and further profess their own agenda by giving news with a heavily opinionated bend.
Posting articles from “Occupy Democrats” (a popular Democrat Facebook group,) is just as detrimental and flawed as posting articles from Breitbart. Coupling that with the fact that many of your friends share the same political views puts you into an endless torrent of fear-mongering news articles, which, after a while, have a significant negative effect on your daily outlook[ii]. Constant posting from such obviously biased and partisan news sources can only further the separation between onions and sharpen the divide. Just the other day, I saw an article on my Facebook newsfeed that literally terrified me into thinking that the President had issued an order that would dramatically reduce my rights. I went into a moment of panic until I decided to research. As it turns out, this order never happened. This is the moment of serenity and clarity that is offered when one takes 30 seconds to do some research, and be critical about the information presented to them, rather than get mired in the stress.
What needs to happen is a radical shift in how our generation interprets and spreads information. Becoming skeptics and understanding what news outlets spread skewed information is only step one. We also need to have civil, face-to-face discussions with others who don’t share our political beliefs and actually make an effort to understand one another. A truly progressive discussion where compromise and understanding take a front seat to bickering and name calling form behind a keyboard. If we actually begin to seek a middle road we can quickly, and much more effectively, reach a synthesis to our “thesis/antithesis” process.
Imagine a world where the news simply delivered the news, and you, now an intelligent consumer of information, could then process the objective information to form an opinion and then engage in well-founded discourse with those who both share your opinion and those who do not. Sounds like utopia, right? Well it’s not entirely impossible. It all depends on a willingness to source and quote reliable media. And it sure as hell sounds less stressful.
No good can come from our continued sharing of articles harshly demonizing one another. It only furthers the difference between us and recharges the debate. Like the earth and the clouds slowly becoming more polarized against one another, our opinions, if they are not well informed, will eventually have to strike to relieve the buildup. If we work to alleviate the pressure buildup that comes from constantly sharing misinformation, we can hopefully live in a world where it doesn’t feel like lightning could strike at any moment.
[i] "Lightning Basics." NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
[ii] Bucher, Eliane, Christian Fiesler, and Anne Suphan. THE STRESS POTENTIAL OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE WORKPLACE. N.p., 01 Aug. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. pp 1639-1667 doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.710245