The Divided States of America Benjamin kuttner

Throughout our nation's history, the United States has been a melting pot of cultures, races, religions, and people. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 and subsequent amendments protected each individual's right to live in a way that embodies our nation's creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Bill of Rights (left) and Declaration of Independence (left)

Among these fundamental rights, is Freedom of Speech. The right of freedom of speech, by definition, is "the right to articulate one's opinions and ideas without any fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction". This right is a critical one in American society, allowing each individual citizen to have their own informed opinion on literally anything, be it positive or negative. And, they are allowed to make their voices heard without punishment.

Republicans (left) vs. Democrats (right)

Perhaps one of the downfalls of living in a country that grants its citizens to live by their own terms (within the law) is the inevitable differences in opinion that occur. The classic example of this, and the one we'll focus on primarily here, is the divisiveness that occurs between individuals about American political matters, particularly during elections. In 2016, this divide arguably is peaking, with President-elect Donald Trump's shocking victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on November 8th.

Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (left) and Republican President-elect Donald Trump (right)

Clinton and Trump created a deeper divide amongst Americans than we have perhaps ever seen. Clinton was portrayed as a corrupt, lying politician, whose E-mail Scandal and WikiLeaks Scandal cast a shadow across her campaign. Trump was the anti-establishment candidate, vowing to eliminate corruption from Washington, but his rhetoric often made him appear racist, homophobic, xenophobic and sexist. Additionally, Trump dealt with a number of women accusing him of sexual assault later in his campaign.

Tweets from both Clinton and Trump supporters condemning the other candidate.

All of these things contributed to significant in-fighting with regards to the American people. Oftentimes, the two's campaigns focused more on putting down the other candidate than elaborating on what policies they will enact in office. This led to many, many Americans taking to social media to voice their opinion. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook became popular places to go to battle with your political opinion. Family, friends and strangers often held their own debates, some friendly and some not. Social media is a direct result of freedom of speech, as it does not censor anyone's opinion and is a excellent way to stand on a soapbox and make your opinion heard. However, how far is too far?

One of many individuals who, on social media, called for the death of a political figure in the 2016 election.

Movements such as #NeverTrump, #Killary, #LoveTrumpsHate or #HillaryForPrison came to define the 2016 election. Social media impacted the election in ways we have never seen before as a country. We saw both candidates and their campaigns using social media as an important tool, with both candidates using it to announce campaign stops, respond to news, and most notably, call out the other candidate. Trump's use (or rather, misuse) of social media alone became one of the biggest talking points of the 2016 election. As we also saw above, supporters of the candidates also used social media to aggressively make their positions known, and to perhaps challenge users with different political opinions to argue.

Some statistics on social media and politics.

If you're tired of hearing about politics on social media, you are definitely not alone. Over one-third of social media users reported being worn about by the many political posts and discussions they see, and two-thirds found it to be stressful and frustrating rather than informative. So now, not only are we divided in our beliefs, but in the fact that some Americans don't even want to discuss politics while some do. On top of this, 64% of Americans say they don't relate to the opinions and discussions they see online.

Protesters at a anti-Trump rally.

This division was not and is not limited to social media, however. Throughout the campaign, and especially since Election Day, protests (primarily against Trump) have been a constant. These protests have often been sparked by the rhetoric of the two candidates, consumed via the news or other media. This makes it incredibly clear what a significant role the media plays in influencing citizens and creating a need for action amongst the American people.

Photo from a CNN broadcast.

It doesn't help that the news media works tirelessly to promote or degrade candidates. Without speculating on if different outlets have a particular bias, it is clear that outlets work to paint specific people and stories in a certain way. For example, the above CNN broadcast is working to paint Donald Trump as a liar. While it is certainly fair to do so (seeing as he did lie) and they have a right to report how they please, doing so helps to create a stigma about a candidate, and also decreases the public's faith in the future of its government. Additionally, it has the potential to influence more contempt and division between people with different opinions, which could lead to violence and disunion.

When all these facts are considered, it becomes clear that news and social media have had a very understated role in the current division of our nation today. Media has the power to not only inform, but influence, and it's clear the vast majority of Americans have been influenced in some way by the tremendous presence politics have in today's media. It allows people to form opinions, share their thoughts, begin movements and express their right to freedom of speech. Social media has become the embodiment of freedom of speech, and in time we shall discover if that is for better or for worse.

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