Social media is making a bad political situation worse.
America’s polarization problem is bigger than we thought it would be. We’re living at a heightened time of partisanship — and not in the “we have differences of opinion” kind of way. And those divides have a way of compounding through social media.
Our country has been struggling with bias and polarization a long time. But the issue is about to get much more urgent. Polarization in social media assists influencers to become more influential. Animosity toward members of opposing parties is very high even though our divisions over policy preferences don’t appear to have grown. Severe inequality puts America at the brink of political violence. Then there’s distrust of facts and journalism organizations, which are necessary to protect democracy.
Hyper-partisanship, tense societal factors, and divergent news diets, or at least divergent interpretations of the news, are then fed back through social media which is likely amplifying our divisions. We don’t know exactly how the social media algorithms work that select what information we see because the technology is a black box controlled by the respective social media company that built it. What we do know is that social media has put less of an emphasis on news and more on engagement, and that posts with strong, emotional language have more engagement. It has addictive qualities just like a drug, alcohol or gambling habit. It’s more public than other media platforms. It’s easier to just jump into an argument and pile on. So the whole thing can be performative. More than talking, we’re showing ourselves off. You’d have a better chance of solving your issues over a meal face to face having a really intelligent and thoughtful conversation, than sitting behind a phone typing in caps.
This radical change to the way that people express their political identities, access information, and communicate with each other fosters the development of increasingly negative feelings toward people who hold different political opinions. Scrolling through the social media news feed triggers a cascade of processes that result in negative attitudes about those who disagree with us politically. Inherent features of social media, paired with the norms of how people use these sites, heighten awareness of political identity. The mapping of nonpolitical cues to political identities reinforces the idea of a large gulf between political parties.
Social media radicalizes people through inflammatory messaging. Most recently, it has been awash in election misinformation. Social media is not focused on making the world a better place; it’s primarily focused on engagement, so it listens to us and gives us what we want. There’s little doubt in my mind that the way our media ecosystem works is enflaming political sectarianism. We also know that more people are getting their news from social media. Those who mainly get their news that way, are also less informed about current events and more likely to have been exposed to conspiracy theories.
Funny enough, despite getting so much news from social media, Americans don’t trust it. Distrust about social media platforms is one of few places Republicans and Democrats agree. It’s high time we deal with how social media has made a bad political situation worse. The problem of polarization on social media is multifaceted, and no single solution operating in isolation will remedy the root of the issue.