by Ellyssa Jeong and Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Editors
photo illustration by Chunyu He
English teacher Kelly Henderson is no stranger to receiving backlash for sharing controversial views online. In September, a Facebook post in which she called for parents who protested against online classes to “f— right off” circulated South communities online. The situation escalated, and Henderson received death and rape threats. Contrasting greatly from the baseless threats, that were divorced from the actual substance of her post and came from random strangers, Henderson said she was grateful for an outpouring of support from Newton community members — especially students.
Students use social media platforms for news sources, meaning students are more informed than ever. In a Nov. 3 survey of 975 South students, over one-quarter of respondents indicated that they encountered political content on social media “all the time.”
As junior Gabriella Zaff scrolls through Instagram, for example, she learns about the Black Lives Matter movement, the status of abortion rights across the globe and the detrimental results of climate change. “My personal Instagram feed is flooded with posts advocating for social justice and from the left side of the political scale,” she said.
Zaff’s social media experience is fairly typical: in a predominantly liberal community like Newton, students encounter mostly liberal views online. But according to senior Yehonatan Mileguir, this “echo-chamber” effect comes with drawbacks.
“If you disagree, you receive a good amount of backlash — maybe not outright, but people will look at you differently,” he said.
Junior Frank Liu said that to many students, high school might already feel like a place where following trends is essential for acceptance, and the political status quo adds an additional layer of pressure.
“People feel a sort of pressure to fit in, or else they might be ostracized by their peers because of their views,” he said.
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Online, controversial opinions are impossible to avoid, senior Maya Makarovsky said.
“If you say something out loud, then a couple of people hear it. But if it’s videotaped, or if you’re typing something, that’s concrete evidence of what you did, what you said, and that’s going to … spread everywhere,” she said.
Senior Sara Saloum said that students’ generally liberal Instagram feeds breed a cycle where they only see one-sided posts.
“Think about the nature of explore pages or a ‘for you’ page: they are crafted to appeal to what you want to see,” she said. “When politics are intertwined with the sense of entertainment, your ‘for you’ page or explore page is going to have exactly what you want to be seeing.”
Makarovsky said that social media drives users to political extremes, starting with political posts on users’ feeds or stories.
“The social media algorithm basically makes you fall down political rabbit holes,” she said. “So, the next video that’s recommended is going to be a little bit more radical, a little bit more based on what you’re watching. It’s also why there’s such polarization.”
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Senior Adam Rotem said that at its core, media polarization is driven by misinformation and clickbait.
“Social media is going to be the downfall of American democracy,” he said. “There’s a lot of fake accounts commenting all over the hundreds of different posts and sites and they’re commenting all these provocative things which are meant to be provocative. It’s meant to say ‘choose this side’ or like ‘this side is better’ and stuff like that. There’s too much aggression.”
Along with issues of misinformation and ill-intended posts on social media, politics generally don’t mix well with social media, as they fail to present a full picture, Makarovsky said.
Despite the divisive nature of social media activism, Henderson said that there are clear benefits to being able to connect with others’ content on platforms.
“I am especially grateful to have a huge group of well-educated, hyper-informed folks on my friends list and I am always learning from them. From seeing an article in a publication I had never heard of to hearing a perspective I’d never considered, I have definitely gotten some education on social media,” she said.
Junior Andrew Kupovich said that social media is responsible for meaningful political discourse.
“If it didn’t exist, many people that aren’t, to a degree, politically active, or I think the events that have transpired over the past few months wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “There are many people that wouldn’t be as politically active or wouldn’t know as much, and I definitely think that having a bombardment of infographics has helped educate people.”
Social media activism is here to stay. And in Newton, only liberal activism is well regarded, students said.
Rotem said that sharing his right-leaning views on social media has come at a cost. He commented on a post that he believes holding a neutral view of the Black Lives Matter movement is not inherently racist — “People were getting pretty agitated with me because of that,” he said.
Rotem said he engaged in dialogue with some who disagreed with him, but his relationship with the original poster soured.
Makarovsky said that she chooses not to challenge the liberal status quo online because she’s concerned about receiving backlash.
“I don’t think defunding the police is a good idea,” she said. “I don’t feel super comfortable saying ‘we shouldn’t defund the police’ on my Instagram or something. I feel like I would be attacked.”
An increasingly polarized culture is of utmost concern to Makarovsky.
“If there’s this social pressure that you have to conform to one opinion, that’s when you start to have issues, and that’s what’s happening right now; this is the ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric, or cancel culture,” she said.
To begin work that encourages difficult conversations and integrates more narratives, Zaff said that the Newton community must be open-minded.
“We need to do a better job as a school to encourage all political beliefs because even though I definitely disagree with a lot of things, it’s never a bad thing to try to understand where people are coming from,” she said.
Zaff said that regardless of users’ intentions, social media fosters an environment that can make it daunting for users to share their opinions.
“No matter how open minded people may seem and encouraging of different views,” she said, “it might be difficult for someone with different views to come forward.”
Data and quotations from an online survey of 975 students: