Why social media is so good at polarizing us

  • Mathematicians are teaming up with political scientists to create models of how social media divides us, and results suggest at least one popular solution might actually make the problem worse

Christopher Mims (with inputs from The Wall Street Journal)
Updated20 Oct 2020
A number of cases have been highlighted in the recent past where social media platforms were used to spread hate messages and rumours inciting violence, including against women.
A number of cases have been highlighted in the recent past where social media platforms were used to spread hate messages and rumours inciting violence, including against women.

Americans are more polarized than ever—at least by some measures.

A growing body of research suggests that social media is accelerating the trend, and many political scientists worry it’s tearing our country apart. It isn’t clear how to solve the problem. And new research suggests that one often-proposed solution—exposing users on the platforms to more content from the other side—might actually be making things worse, because of how social media amplifies extreme opinions.

With an election looming, Congressional investigations highlighting the far-reaching power of Facebook and Google over what we see and hear, and long-term trends in polarization pointing toward an ever-more-fractured America, the question of what role social-media giants play in dividing or uniting us has taken on new urgency, says Christopher Bail, a professor of sociology at Duke University who studies the impact of social media on polarization.

If social media seems particularly infuriating lately, it’s possible that it’s as much about the way it shapes our perception of what’s going on as it is about the reality of the viewpoints and behavior of our fellow Americans.

It’s also possible that highly partisan media—something that was common at the birth of our nation but which the U.S. had a relative respite from during the age of broadcast media—is an unavoidable consequence of America’s foundational right to free expression. Technology only magnifies this natural effect of democracy.

One of the challenges of studying polarization is defining polarization.

There are different kinds. One, known as affective polarization, measures how much people of one party dislike members of the opposite party. Various measures of affective polarization have shown that over the past 60 years, it’s gotten much worse. Another kind, known as ideological polarization, measures how far apart members of each party are on all issues, such as abortion and gun control. This kind of polarization has, contrary to what you might think, remained relatively stable over time.

In other words, many Americans hate each other more than ever, but they don’t disagree with each other any more than they used to.

Taken as a whole, the literature on whether social media polarizes us is inconclusive, says Dr. Bail, a fact that Facebook itself has highlighted in its past responses to The Wall Street Journal coverage of the tech giant’s role in dividing America. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to isolate any one influence on the polarization of Americans, he adds, is that there are so many—from geographic self-sorting to long-term changes in the way political parties organize themselves.

It’s also impossible to do the kind of experiments needed for measuring the contribution of any one thing, he says: Imagine switching off Facebook for a whole country, just to see if that reduced political polarization.

To try to sort out what’s going on, researchers are instead creating mathematical models in which such experiments can be conducted. Like all simulations, these models are limited by the assumptions they make about the real world, yet they are giving rise to a new wave of intuitions and testable hypotheses about how social media affects us.

One such model, just published by researchers at Northwestern University, incorporates recent, and in some ways counterintuitive, findings by political scientists. One, from a 2018 study by Dr. Bail, is that when you repeatedly expose people on social media to viewpoints different than their own, it just makes them dig in their heels and reinforces their own viewpoint, rather than swaying them to the other side. (Dr. Bail’s study was conducted on U.S. users of Twitter, but other studies have begun to replicate it, he adds.)

In the past, social-media giants have been accused of only showing us content that agrees with our preconceptions, creating echo chambers or “filter bubbles.” The proposed solution, trumpeted by pundits of every stripe, was to change the social-media algorithms so that they would show us more content from people who disagree with us.

According to David Sabin-Miller and Daniel Abrams, creators of this latest model, exposing us to viewpoints different from our own, in whatever medium we encounter them, might actually be part of the problem. The reason is probably intuitive for anyone who has the misfortune to spend an unhealthy amount of time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or even cable news. (During the pandemic, that’s more of us than ever.) Because social media and Balkanized TV networks tend to highlight content with the biggest emotional punch—that is, they operate on the principle that if it’s outrageous, it’s contagious—when we’re exposed to a differing view, it often takes an extreme form, one that seems personally noxious.

Mr. Sabin-Miller and Dr. Abrams, both mathematicians, call this effect “repulsion.” In addition to the “pull” of repeatedly seeing viewpoints that reinforce our own, inside of our online echo chambers, repulsion provides a “push” away from opposing viewpoints, they argue. Importantly, this repulsion appears to be a more powerful force, psychologically, than attraction to our own side of a debate.

Bad actors on social media—such as Russian agents who have been active in advance of the 2020 election, attempting to divide Americans further—already appear to recognize repulsion as a tool, says Mr. Sabin-Miller. These trolls will assume roles on both sides of an ideological divide, and play dumb to make one side of the debate look foolish, while playing down the extremity of views on the other side.

“A reason we have some confidence in our model is the people who are trying to polarize us are already doing what they should be, by our model, to be optimally effective,” he adds.

Another model by Vicky Chuqiao Yang, an applied mathematician at the Santa Fe Institute, explored a phenomenon political scientists have previously described: the way political parties have themselves become more polarized over time. Her model buttresses past work that suggested that political parties play to their more extreme constituents because it’s more strategically advantageous than trying to go for ideological moderates, who often swing to one party or the other.

What models like these—and an assortment of other research by other sociologists, political scientists and technologists—suggest is that while social media might not be a direct driver of political polarization in the U.S., the way it interacts with many other phenomena could mean it has outsize power to drive us apart, says Dr. Yang.

These potential feedback loops are worthy of further study, says Dr. Bail, who cautions that they are still hypothetical. One such feedback loop, the way that social media drives the choice of stories and their framing on cable news, could explain the way that social media indirectly polarizes even those who don’t rely on the internet as a primary source of news, such as Americans age 65 and older.

Cable news began the fragmentation of broadcast media into ideological filter bubbles long before social media arose, says Lisa Napoli, author of the book “Up All Night,” about the birth of CNN. Ms. Napoli also notes that extreme partisanship was a feature of America’s earliest newspapers, which often relied on the patronage of the politicians they praised, while lambasting their opponents.

As long as Americans have the freedom to choose outlets that support their own views while exposing them to alternative viewpoints in ways that primarily lead to repulsion, the result will be the polarization we see today, says Mr. Sabin-Miller—at least according to his model.

Unfortunately, understanding how social and other media divide us doesn’t immediately suggest any solutions for the companies that run social-media platforms, says Dr. Abrams.

Facebook continuously updates its rules banning inflammatory content and news it deems factually inaccurate, but a recent Journal test found that much of this content remains up even when in violation. Twitter and other platforms, meanwhile, are taking what are (for social networks, anyway) radical steps to try to change the rate at which content of every kind goes viral, by slowing down retweets. It remains to be seen whether such measures will work.

For each of us as an individual news consumer, the story is slightly more hopeful. “Just this idea that things close to you are attractive and things far away are repulsive can give you a framework,” says Mr. Sabin-Miller. “If I’m only seeing things that are good for my own side and really crazy from the other, maybe I should look for something slightly toward the center,” he adds.

Based on my own reporting, I’d call that a ringing endorsement for avoiding social media as much as possible—especially just before and after an election.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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