The Impact of Polarizing Ads on College Voters

Our generation is often jaded by the dangers of engaging with large amounts of controversial content. Growing up with YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter, this election cycle’s first-time voter pool is known as the generation of social media and was targeted by political campaigns on various social platforms. Disinformation campaigns and the spread of misinformation have become common on social platforms, making it difficult for users to determine credibility. An analysis conducted by the Center for Information & Research on CIvic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that young people (ages 18-24) are turning to social media to “both consume and produce political content”. Of those surveyed by CIRCLE, 70% of young people got their information about the 2020 election on social media. Considering the overwhelming effect of political ads and polarizing algorithms from the general and 2020 senate run off elections, I am concerned about college students’ prospects for long-term civic engagement. Has the exposure to dis/misinformation presented a stronger divide in our country? Will current college students lose interest in long-term civic engagement as a result of  ads and algorithms on social media?

Political and racial divides persist in the United States and political campaigns are taking advantage of this division in the name of engagement. Such tactics were clear in the 2020 presidential and Georgia senate run-off elections. Nonstop campaign ads and voter outreach used  “vote for me because you hate them” as a messaging strategy to recruit supporters for their campaign and/or political party’s slate. While it can be nauseating and a “turn-off” for politics, we have to recognize the strength of these organizing tactics and what they reflect and foreshadow about our civil society and the future of voter engagement.

I conducted a survey targeting college-aged Georgia voters about their election experience, where 75.8% of the 33 respondents were first-time voters during the 2020 election cycle. When asked about their voting experience, 48.5% rated their experience this election cycle a 10/10, being that they are excited for the next race. One claimed they were “very excited to be a part of the democratic process and see my voice contribute to change”. 

Respondents stated their primary method of receiving election updates was via social media. When asked about social media’s influence, 30.3% of responses noted that social media had a neutral influence over how they voted. Two-thirds of the respondents saw more than one political view on their social media, and one-third did not see more than one. My survey also inquired about social media companies’ role in helping create or intensify this clear divide between political ideologies. When asked if social media itself polarized the country, respondents had mixed feelings: two-thirds said no, and one-third said not necessarily. One wrote:

I know [social media] helped open my eyes to different perspectives within my own political party (specifically related to topics and policies focused on the state and local levels), and I’ve found myself becoming even more liberal than I already was in the past. 

Building upon the previous question about the contribution to increasing polarization and extremist views, I posed the survey takers to consider the social media companies’ obligation to monitor the content amongst users, such as hate speech within its algorithmic patterns. This prompted diverse responses amongst participants: 54.5% said yes; 27.3% said no; 18.2% said maybe. One answered, “I think that to a certain extent they should, especially when it comes to harmful messages being spread, but I also think there’s only so much they can do without completely stripping people of their opinions.” On the other hand, one responded, “We all have the freedom to post our beliefs, so I feel as though social media companies should not regulate speech.”

I was surprised by the amount of students who did not connect recent events like the insurrection and the rise of Black Lives Matter (BLM) to social media. Right-wing extremists used platforms such as Parlor, Gab, MeWe, Rumble to build a community and gain support for the insurrection. Since 2014, BLM has used their social network to build community and support for families of Black people killed by police officers. Social media has allowed individuals to create two different realities in regards to these events without prioritizing true information. Social media platforms have not been held accountable for their role in the spread of harmful information, posing a threat to the civic participation of future generations.

While freedom of speech and expression is the selling point to many of these platforms, market economies and monetary gain are too prioritized for the sake of engagement. Yosef Getachew, Common Cause Media & Democracy Program Manager, writes that “Platforms have implemented business models designed to maximize user engagement and prioritize their profit shares over combating harmful content.” Although election season has concluded, this proliferation amongst social platforms continues to polarize our society when trying to implement election audits, overcome COVID-19 vaccination efforts and even critical race theory being taught in our schools. Considering that the Georgia student voters surveyed prefered social media as their news source, we must focus our attention on accurate, clear, and factual dialogue on our digital platforms. 

All things considered, we as users must continue to be pillars of truth and accountability within our circles, Facebook groups, and amongst our followers. Due to the shortcomings of social media algorithms and absence of human fact-checkers from artificial intelligence codes that interpret information, we must act collectively to fight this bug of prioritizing likes and comments over truth. Social media does not present the most welcoming space for dialogue that encourages learning and understanding. However, infographics connect appealing graphics and simple text to simplify complex topics, and those methods have helped with left-leaning opinions. This same human intervention can work and will work to end the acceptance of false information. Community moderators for public forums have also proven to change minds and hearts on contentious issues. These efforts have kept young voters engaged and gives hope to the idea of maintaining life-long engagement for this generation of students.


Booth, R.B., Tombaugh, E., Kiesa, A., Lundberg, K., and Cohen, A. (2020, October 20). Young people turn to online political engagement during covid-19. CIRCLE.

Getachew, Y. (2021). (Point) Yosef Getachew: Regulate social media to mitigate hate speech. Livingston County News.

Ray, S. (2021, January 14). The Far-Right Is Flocking To These Alternate Social Media Apps — Not All Of Them Are Thrilled. Forbes.—not-all-of-them-are-thrilled/?sh=50c9683d55a4