The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our platforms: It’s in ourselves

Photo by Jason Howie (Flickr).

By Anna Stjernquist
BU News Service

As political polarization has become a major element of American civic life, fingers are often pointed at the role of social media. But several recent studies say that online platforms have little, if anything to do with the deepening divides.

The social platforms were a focus following the 2016 elections, with the Mueller Report finding Russian intelligence groups created bots to influence the elections with misinformation. It’s a story that is now resurfacing among fears that history could repeat itself.

On Oct.7, Facebook announced that it would widen its ban on political advertisements following the election period, to prevent misinformation about the results. That follows a previous announcement of a ban on political ads from Oct. 27 until Election Day.

But when looking for evidence, there is surprisingly little to support that social media shapes public opinion. On the contrary, most studies challenge the idea that social media plays a meaningful role in dividing political sides.

Jesse Shapiro, a professor in economics at Brown University, co-authored a study on people who reported becoming more polarized politically between 1997 and 2016. Those who said they were most polarized were over 65, an age group that says they use social media the least.

A later study covered social media use during the 2016 election with similar findings.

“We find that, relative to prior elections, the Republican share of the vote in 2016 was as high or higher among the groups least active online. I think this argues for caution in concluding that new technologies were a major factor in the 2016 election outcome,” the study concluded.

A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society reaches a similar conclusion: that disinformation surrounding the 2020 mail-in balloting debate came largely from President Trump and his campaign before being promoted on social media.

Growing divisions

There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence for growing divisions. That is especially clear when looking back in time.

In 1960, only 4% of Democrats and Republicans said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married someone from the outside party. In 2019, that number was 45% among Democrats and 35% among Republicans.

But cause and consequence aren’t entirely clear in this case.

“There are many signs of a genuine increase in negative sentiment between the two main political parties in the U.S. While we need more research to know the exact consequences of this trend, I think they are potentially very important,” Shapiro said.

While divisions are growing, the number of independent voters have stayed the same.

Morris Fiorina, professor of political science at Stanford University, said that polarization among average Americans doesn’t necessarily exist.

The silent majority

Fiorina said that the most polarized voices are activists, or possibly those who are most dissatisfied, but most Americans are and have remained a silent majority. About 40% of Americans refuse to identify with either party, a number that has remained stable over the last few decades.

In June 2020, Fox News was reported as the most-watched network in the United States. Despite that popularity, only about 1% of Americans watch it. Additionally, only about 10% of Twitter accounts in the U.S. are used daily.

“If you look at the electorate as a whole, and you don’t slice and dice it by Democrat, Republican, black, white, men, women, etc., it looks the same as it did forty years ago,” Fiorina said.

The issue is partisan polarization and how parties have become more extreme in their views, he said, confirming the findings of Shapiro’s recent study.

“It’s important, it means that we can’t get anything done. It’s a steel-made gridlock in the United States,” Fiorina said. “But it’s a mistake to say that the average American citizen is more polarized than they were.”

Political polarization is likely worsened by factors such as economic inequality, migration, globalized trade and technological progressions.

But Fiorina explained that the most pressing issue is the two-party system.

“People who are somewhere in the middle politically are left having to choose between two parties that they don’t support,” he aid. “It is not an accurate representation of American voters.”

Political and social issues that polarize the two parties exemplify this. For example, Fiorina said that left-wing news media coverage would undoubtedly be pro-abortion. Similarly, right-wing news media coverage would be anti-abortion.

But 60% of Republicans and Democrats did not agree with their party on the matter, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Social media connects the extremes

The select group that uses social media to interact with politics or news are likely to be interested in politics and news. It is unclear if social media changes their existing beliefs.

Although there may be more to political polarization than social media, the social media monopolies could make it easier to spread misinformation and to hold extreme views among its users, said Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, information and communication at UMass Amherst.

He said this is especially true because the information that circulates online is hard, if not impossible, to regulate.

“We always want to blame technology for human problems and it’s easier in some ways to blame the technology than it is to blame the many ways in which humans get things wrong,” he said.

Zuckerman added that the internet may normalize extreme views on both sides.

“What the internet has done is made it easier for people who are the only neo-Nazis in their town to find someone else across the country who believes what they do,” he said. “That normalizes the behavior. It’s more common that you will take that extreme stand if you think that there are others out there who have that extreme stand.”

He suggests introducing more but smaller media platforms that could be regulated more easily.

“It’s too easy to blame political extremism on social media,” he said. “I believe that change will come from individual communities that come together to discuss how we can make these tools better and more democratic.”

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