How social media divides us: Is the medium of social media the message? (long version)
If broadcast TV was an opiate of the masses, is social media an amphetamine?
I have an abridged version of this piece here, which I recommend. For an audio reading, see my podcast. If you’re interested in polarization, check out all my podcast episodes related to that.
Does it feel like everyone is becoming more angry? It’s not your imagination, and it’s not confined to the United States. Across the world, democracies are crumbling and the main driver seems to be a widespread increase in political animosity.
Is it possible that the internet and social media play a role in this?
A lot of the work around the divisive nature of social media has focused on specific product features, whether it’s the use of addictive features to keep you engaged (as examined in the documentary The Social Dilemma), or Facebook using private data for advertising purposes (as examined in the documentary The Great Hack), or YouTube video-recommendation algorithms that expose people to increasingly extreme content.
But what if the focus on product features is wrong? What if the focus on product features is being largely driven by people in the tech industry who have an incentive to promote their abilities to solve these problems using different product features?
What if this focus on product features is distracting us from something more fundamental and intrinsic about these technologies? What if internet communication, simply by speeding up and distorting our interactions, agitates us in ways that don’t have much to do with product decisions? What if putting human interactions “on speed” results in amplifying some of the darker aspects of our social psychology?
Put another way: what if the medium of using the internet to communicate affects us in a “medium is the message” way, similar to how Marshall McLuhan and other medium theory thinkers theorized about how the fundamental medium of television, or books, can affect us.
For some examples of how this might work, there are psychology studies that support all of these ideas:
- Writing down beliefs makes us more committed to those beliefs.
- Being insulted makes us more committed to our beliefs.
- Being in like-minded groups makes us more extreme.
- Angry messages spread more easily than non-angry messages.
The internet is an environment that lends itself to amplifying these effects (and more we’ll examine). And this would seem to be true no matter what specific features an online networking app has.
In this piece, I bring together ideas that might help us answer the question: If social media is dividing us, how does it divide us? What are the psychological processes by which it’s affecting us?
Before we examine those ideas, I’ll first give a summary of what the state of political polarization is in the U.S. and why it’s considered a problem in the first place. If you already understand why extreme polarization is a problem and want to skip to the psychological factors, go to Basics of our tribal psychology.
What’s wrong with being polarized?
When the subject of political polarization is brought up, some people have the response, “Of course we’re polarized, and that’s how it should be because the other side is horrible.” Here’s a real-world example of this kind of reaction:
So why should we care if we’re polarized?
First, it’s important to recognize that, while the U.S. has grown more polarized by some measures, at the same time we aren’t as polarized on the actual issues as is widely perceived, and most of us aren’t as politically opinionated as is widely perceived. We seem to be primarily affected by what is sometimes called affective polarization; a high preference for people in our own group and high disdain for members of the other group. We increasingly feel that we are at war, that what is at stake is a matter of life-and-death, of freedom versus liberty, of good versus evil, no matter what the overlap may be on actual issues.
And this growing group-versus-group hatred is a self-perpetuating cycle that can end very badly. The United States is following in the footsteps of extremely polarized nations that have fallen apart, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Hungary. In countries who’ve gone through this, the political animosity ramps upward, which leads to political systems becoming more and more dysfunctional and political violence becoming more and more common. As you may have noticed, the United States is already experiencing some of these things.
While it’s always possible to lay the blame for these conflicts at the feet of specific people and groups (e.g., Trump in the U.S., Chavez in Venezuela), the leaders that come to represent these threats are themselves symptoms of underlying divides. Trump is a symptom of an anger and resentment that likely would have expressed itself in some form, whether Trump was around or not.
No matter which group is more at fault, or no matter that some political leaders are more at fault than others, these are self-perpetuating cycles that everyone in society plays a role in either exacerbating or healing. One group’s hate feeds the other group’s hate, and so on and so on. If more people don’t recognize the factors at work and work on improving them, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to devolve.
Recognizing that extreme polarization is a problem doesn’t mean that one can’t be angry. We can be passionate and work towards political goals while directing criticism where we know it belongs (e.g., at specific political leaders), without extrapolating that anger to a huge group of people, many of whom simply do not see the same problems we do.
To take one example of illogical language that increases societal polarization: it’s common to see liberals say things online like, “All Trump supporters are hateful racists.”
But the simple fact that there are black Trump supporters, and other people of color who support Trump, should be sufficient evidence that not everyone perceives the same problems we do. Our perceptions are not other people’s perceptions. Our moral outrages are not other people’s moral outrages. And when we direct unreasonable hate towards another group, they will direct it back at us.
Is social media definitely dividing us?
It’s hard to say to what degree social media is dividing us.
For one thing, group-versus-group polarization seems to be an organic process that happens as groups become more ideologically sorted over time. In the case of the United States, we’ve been becoming increasingly polarized over the last seven decades, as indicated by several measures (e.g., congressional vote polarization and surveys showing increased animosity.) And many other countries have gone through similar processes of increasing political polarization.
There’s also research by Levi Boxell et al showing that polarization in the U.S. has increased most amongst older people, who use social media least. That doesn’t prove that social media is not having a polarizing effect; there are obviously other factors affecting polarization. And theoretically, social media could still be a leading factor: for example, older people might be becoming more polarized by the social media that they do use, and spreading those feelings to peers. Or perhaps social media conflicts being covered as news polarizes older people more than younger people.
On the other side of things, there’s research that supports the idea that social media is dividing us. In Jaime Settle’s book Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, she makes a strong case that using Facebook creates animosity towards members of the opposite political group.
And there’s research by Steven Johnson et al showing that “the more time someone spends on Facebook, the more polarized their online news consumption becomes.”
And there’s work by Jon Haidt, who writes about how social media divides us and how it generally makes people more anxious and unhappy.
In an interview I did with Emily Kubin, who did an analysis of more than 100 studies related to social media effects, she said that she thought social media was amplifying polarization.
One of the strongest arguments that social media is increasing animosity may be how social media users themselves perceive it. Most people using it feel that it’s dividing us. In a Pew research study about social media and politics, 37% of social media users say they are “worn out by political discussions on these platforms.” 64% found they “typically have less in common than they thought when they discuss politics on social media with people they disagree with.”
Basics of our tribal psychology
Our tendency to polarize into us-versus-them camps can be seen as relying on some basic psychological tendencies we have as tribal, social creatures.
We view our own group as being made up of individuals with diverse views and personalities while we view the other group as a mass of single-minded creatures. The so-called out-group homogeneity effect describes this tendency to view an opponent group (the out-group) as more monolithic than it actually is.
Related to this: if members on our own side have faults, we tend to overlook them and make excuses for them, but we will harshly judge members of the out-group. This tendency is referred to as in-group favoritism, amongst other names.
All of the psychological factors we’ll examine reinforce these basic tribal tendencies we have. Let’s take a look at how some of these tendencies of ours can be efficiently amplified when the interactions take place on social media:
- Liberals on social media say things like “If you’re a Trump supporter, you’re a racist moron.”
- Many messages of this type are easily seen by Trump supporters, making them angry.
- Trump supporters perceive liberals, as a group, as more hateful and rude than was previously perceived. This makes Trump supporters more angry, and more committed to their group.
- Trump supporters are then more likely to go online and say hateful things about liberals, like, “All liberals hate America and want to destroy it.”
- Liberals easily find these messages online and now think Trump supporters, as a group, are more hateful and unreasonable than was perceived before.
- People interact online in various like-minded groupings. In such environments, people become more extreme and more angry.
The process continues, with more and more people involved and increasingly angry us-versus-them feelings.
To be clear: humans have a tendency to get into these group-vs-group dynamics naturally, without aid from any technology. But social media seems to be an efficient amplifier of these tendencies.
Now let’s take a closer look at the processes by which social media may be amplifying such tendencies.
Factor #1: Social media makes us stubborn
For almost all of human history, most human conversation was a private affair, ephemeral and quickly fading from memory. It’s new and unusual to have so much of our conversation publicly on display, and even recorded for posterity. It would be surprising if such drastic changes didn’t have some noticeable effect on the quality of our relationships.
In a 1955 study by Girard and Deutsch, they found that writing things down, whether privately or publicly, made people less likely to change their minds. Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion summarizes this study:
The results were quite clear. The students who had never written down their first choices were the least loyal to those choices. When new evidence was presented that questioned the wisdom of decisions that had never left their heads, these students were the most influenced by the new information to change what they had viewed as the “correct” decision. Compared to these uncommitted students, those who had merely written their decisions for a moment on a Magic Pad were significantly less willing to change their minds when given the chance. Even though they had committed themselves under the most anonymous of circumstances, the act of writing down their first judgments caused them to resist the influence of contradictory new data and to remain consistent with the preliminary choices.
But Deutsch and Gerard found that, by far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later. Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all. [emphasis mine]
Have you ever written something online, whether a Facebook post or an email to a colleague and, when you were questioned or criticized about it, felt the urge to double down and defend your opinion despite recognizing your mistake? It’s human nature to feel an instinct to defend ourselves when we do something foolish. We have to consciously work against being stubborn and defensive.
Another study supporting this idea is 2020 study by Strandberg et al. They had people fill our surveys on various political topics and then manipulated some of the polarized answers to be more neutral. 94% of the subjects defended the manipulated answers as their own. Their belief that they’d stated a different opinion made them internalize and defend that opinion. Even more surprising: their attitudes “even persisted one week later.” If we feel a need to defend and internalize things we’ve never said, we must therefore feel a need to defend and internalize things we’ve said, no matter how quickly-conceived or ill-thought-out.
Using social media means frequently writing down our beliefs. There is a pressure to express an opinion on events and topics. And many of these statements of ours will be very quickly conceived and barely thought out. These are the kind of thoughts that, in a pre-digital world, might simply be the starting point of us building more nuanced and less polarized views.
Humans desire self-consistency. We have a wish to see ourselves as coherent and stable beings over time. Social media, by inducing us to make all sorts of statements on all sorts of topics, especially publicly and especially simplistic takes, may be hardening our beliefs and self-conceptions in a way that humans have never had to deal with before. We may be making ourselves more resistant to listening to others and to changing our minds.
Factor #2: Social media promotes negative emotions
It’s been shown that social media messages with more moral and emotional words get more attention and shares. It’s also been shown that anger is more influential than other emotions for spreading messages online. Negativity bias is a concept describing how negative things psychologically affect us more than positive things do. From an evolutionary point of view, negative emotions are associated with threats, so it makes sense that we are wired to respond more to those than to the more relaxing positive emotions.
And there’s a lot one can get angry and sad about these days. The internet gives us awareness of so many events from across the country and the world, in a way that’s unprecedented in human history. At any given point in time, there are many horrible things happening on earth. This has always been the case but now we can easily learn about all of these things. We perhaps aren’t naturally well equipped to deal with so many sources of anger, fear, and sadness.
The internet also allows immediate sharing of things, and this means that bad ideas and misunderstandings can quickly spread and cause unreasonable anger. For example, there have been many instances in India of violence caused by fake news. To take another example: there have been riots in Minneapolis caused by fake news. Violence caused by fake news and misunderstandings is more and more common across the world. Even for real video clips, due to the unfiltered, immediate nature of the internet, there can be inaccurate and emotional misinterpretations that spread quickly and have harmful effects.
As the saying goes: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” One reason a lie, or even just an angry, emotional take, can travel fast is that it isn’t constrained by the need to contain nuance and context; it can tell a short, simple, good-versus-evil story that appeals to our emotions.
Social media also allows us to share and mock the most angry and unreasonable opinions of the other political group. For example: a conservative Twitter user shares a tweet from a liberal who wants to “abolish the police.” The conservative Twitter user’s followers react angrily, as if that’s a common liberal opinion, despite it being far from common (and also, it seems unclear what people mean when they say that).
Or a liberal Twitter user shares a racist or homophobic tweet from a Trump supporter and the liberal’s followers react angrily, as if that were a defining Trump supporter opinion. Due to the out-group homogeneity effect, we quickly come to view the other side as more horrible than it is, and we become more angry than we should be.
One example of a source of online anger amongst liberals is the sharing of offensive and/or racist behavior caught on video. Some of the mass outrage sparked by these “viral” videos are misunderstandings or over-reactions. In one case, a woman in California had said offensive, racist things to Asian people and several videos of her bizarre behavior were widely shared online, with people calling her racist and framing her behavior as being due to her conservative politics. There was even a protest organized against this woman’s behavior. But an acquaintance of the woman stated on social media that she suffered from mental illness. And on my podcast, a psychologist said that her behavior almost certainly indicated a mental illness, and explained why people with such problems can’t be judged as responsible for such behavior.
It’s easy to see how such emotional over-reactions will cause some conservatives to see liberals as arguing in bad faith in an attempt to portray conservatives as racists. Or cause some conservatives to perceive other criticisms of Trump or the GOP as being similarly hysterical and inaccurate.
Factor #3: Social media is distant and dehumanizing
A 2017 study by Abe Rutchick showed that it’s easier to kill when we’re physically distant from the killing. This was discussed in terms of its relevance to drone warfare, but it also has relevance to our use of social media. If it’s easier to kill at a distance, it stands to reason it’s easier to be unreasonable or insulting or threatening when interacting with other people when they’re many miles away.
Audio/video call tools, whether the telephone or Zoom, are also long-distance communication tools, but they force a more traditional human interaction. We are more cognizant of the other person’s humanity due to their voice or their facial expressions. Seeing and hearing other people activates our best social instincts.
Also, pure-text communication is less rich and nuanced than in-person or audio communication. We lack various dimensions (tone of voice, facial expressions, body language) that lend meaning to speech. This leads to more misunderstandings online than we have otherwise.
Factor #4: Social media gives us more opportunity to be insulted
A 1967 study by Robert Abelson et al showed that when subjects were insulted during the course of a discussion, that “increased the extremity of [their] initial attitude position”, in a type of boomerang effect.
If you’ve spent a good amount of time online, this probably seems intuitively true. Next time you’re insulted online, study how you feel. Do you feel an instinctual us-versus-them animosity rise in you? An instinctual urge to insult them back? Do you feel more committed to your ideas?
One study showed that when people’s political views were challenged, it activates the same responses in the brain as being threatened or insulted. Social media confronts us with so many topics and world events, more than we’ve ever had to think about before. There’s a pressure to have stances on all of these topics, whether that’s a peer pressure or just our own desire to be engaged with ideas in our environment. Social media has increased the ways in which we might feel threatened or insulted, even when there’s not good cause to feel that way. We’ve grown more defensive, and that anger can make us more biased and more extreme.
The internet makes it easy for various groups, like political or religious groups, to learn about insults to their group. The internet allows members of sensitive groups to easily find evidence of people disrespecting them, including disrespect from distant people they wouldn’t be aware of without modern communication tools. For example, Muslim extremists can now easily find anti-Islam social media posts. Some group leaders may actively search out insults to their group to rile up group members and create group identity. And some malicious people may purposefully product insulting content, knowing that the internet will aid in spreading outrage.
Social psychologist Karina Korostelina is the author of Political Insults: How Offenses Escalate Conflict. In my interview with her, she said that the internet had likely increased conflict by leading to greater creation and perception of insults.
Apart from purposeful insults, our modern communication tools give us an entirely new awareness of the world and the people around us that may create feelings of insult. For example, it’s easier than ever before for poor and struggling people to see how wealthier people are living and what they’re thinking. It’s easy to imagine this increased awareness of disparity and inequality could, on its own, generate feelings of insult and anger. There have been many studies and articles on how social media’s transparency can harm self-esteem and increase depression and anxiety (here’s one review by Igor Pantic). And there has been a lot of thought about how the internet helps lead to more group identity (some relevant content from Francis Fukuyama). But I haven’t seen much about how the transparency of social media might, purely on its own, heighten feelings of insult and threats to dignity, although this seems to me a logical outcome (if you know of such studies or writings, much appreciated if you’d share).
All of these effects discussed here are related and reinforce each other. The distant nature of the internet make us more likely to insult each other, which leads us to be more committed to our beliefs, more extreme. We then respond to those insults and, by writing things down publicly, we may become more committed to those beliefs.
Factor #5: Social media fosters familiarity, which can breed contempt
Political polarization might be part of a broader pattern of social media just increasing our dislike of each other. In a 2007 paper Less Is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, Michael Norton et al found that, as the saying goes, familiarity can breed contempt.
Ambiguity about the people around us can have value as a social lubricant. For one thing, we tend to assume that other people are like us in various ways. Also, the less we know about someone, the less likely we are to have discovered something about them that we view as negative. To quote the study: “We suggest that as individuals glean more knowledge about others, their overly optimistic impressions can be tempered, leading to decreased liking.”
Personally, I think that social media has harmed my relationships in general, not just around political topics. To take one example of how this can play out: let’s say someone I know makes a post about their interest in astrology. This might cause me to think something like, “This person is dumb; do I really want to hang out with someone that dumb?” But social media is inherently an un-nuanced medium. If that person’s belief were expressed in an in-person interaction, the conversation might expose more nuance (e.g., “I know it’s probably bullshit but I think it’s kind of fun”) or, even if that didn’t happen, in-person social dynamics would likely make that person more likeable and appealing to me, no matter their views. In-person interactions make us more aware of the humanity of the other person, and we are more charitable in our judgments.
If you believe in astrology (30% of Americans do), you might dislike me for what I just said about it. And this is related to our topic. Online communication takes the form of a series of statements; in that way, it’s unlike traditional in-person communication, which tends to have a natural give-and-take. All of us have various beliefs and judgements about things; that’s just part of being human. And one or another of our beliefs will inevitably bother someone we know. Social media helps expose those judgments in an unlikeable and unpersuasive manner.
In Jaime Settle’s book Frenemies: How Social Media is Polarizing America, she examines how the “familiarity breeds contempt” effect may be working in the political sphere. Her research shows that using Facebook seems to cause an increase in people’s animosity towards members of the other political group. The primary way this happens is through the effect Facebook has on apolitical people, the people who don’t want to “talk politics.” By seeing Facebook content, these people become more aware of how the people around them fit into political groupings, in a way that happened much less frequently before social media.
Some of this increased awareness of others’ political views comes from people posting explicitly political content. But as we’ve become more polarized and sorted, there’s an ever-increasing number of cultural, lifestyle elements that are associated with political views. For example, someone making a post about enjoying Chick Fil-A could be perceived as being a conservative because it’s fairly well known that the Chick Fil-A owners have religious conservative stances, even if the person posting that is apolitical and really just loves that Chick Fil-A special sauce (sorry, I don’t know much about Chick Fil-A).
Most people don’t like to talk about politics, because politics is seen as a contentious issue. But Facebook (and other social media) forces these people to see how the people around them fit into political and cultural buckets, and this increases an us-versus-them awareness.
A 2018 study showed that, counter-intuitively, exposure to other political views can increase polarization. To quote from that paper: “a more recent wave of studies […] suggest exposure to those with opposing political views may create backfire effects that exacerbate political polarization.” This could be partially explained by the fact that we have already become so self-sorted and group-affiliated that the group boundaries and out-group disdain are well entrenched. As Jon Haidt explains in his book The Righteous Mind, our emotional responses seem to come first and then are followed by creating justifications for those feelings (this is called motivated reasoning). Once associations between political groups and traits are established, it’s easy to see how we might instinctually resist views and interpretations we associate with “the other side.”
Factor #6: Social media removes normal frames of reference
Social media encounters happen outside of the normal frames of reference that have traditionally defined human relationships. In pre-internet days, we interacted with people based on various frames of reference, like meeting as neighbors, or as close friends, or as fellow churchgoers, or as business partners, and our interactions were guided by that frame.
But online, this helpful context is stripped away. Communication researchers call this context collapse. This can lead to us misunderstanding each other more, making us less likable to each other.
To take a personal example: my wife posted a message about veganism on Facebook, and a friend of mine responded with something like, “I’m so glad we all have so much free time that we can worry about stuff like this.”
It was out of character for him to be rude. Talking to him later, he apologized and explained that when he made that comment, he’d just come from spending time with a friend whose child had died. When he saw my wife’s post, his immediate reaction was, “How petty to be worried about this with all the tragedy in the world.”
But of course the way we perceive the world at a specific moment seldom aligns with others’ perceptions and priorities at that point in time. Even our own perception of what’s right or important can change throughout the day; something you posted online yesterday may seem tone-deaf and embarrassing to you tomorrow. Most of the things any of us do or say will seem petty and unimportant to someone somewhere, especially when compared to issues of life and death.
In my story, my friend would likely never have said such a thing to my wife in pre-internet days. And that’s because in-person interactions give us helpful frames of reference, give us expectations for what the conversation will be like, and activate our more generous and charitable social instincts. In-person socializing fosters a natural back-and-forth, give-and-take dynamic; social media communication takes the form of a series of isolated statements.
When I interviewed a police captain for my podcast, he mentioned how he thought that 911 calls for family fights and domestic disturbances had risen due to misunderstandings and conflicts originating on social media.
Without the social context we are accustomed to, we can appear to each other petty, heartless, hard to understand. We will frequently misunderstand each other and assign motives and feelings to each other that aren’t there.
(For more on the subject of how social media distorts our social interactions, I recommend Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror.)
Factor #7: Social media gives power to the more extreme
As discussed, emotional messages are shared the most on social media. And the passionate creators of those emotional messages don’t represent most of society. From Pew research: “Most users rarely tweet, but the most prolific 10% create 80% of tweets from adult U.S. users.”
And most Americans don’t follow politics closely. The following is from a October 2020 New York Times article The real divide in America is between political junkies and everyone else:
What we found is that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the people we call “deeply involved”): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of ‘Cuties.’
A 2018 survey about U.S. polarization showed that we’re all pressured to conform to the beliefs of people around us. Pressure to conform to one’s group has always been there in some form, but social media, by making our thoughts and interactions public and recorded, increases our fear of judgment and reprisal.
To take another personal example: nearly every liberal friend of mine believes that the violent antifa/BLM protests and riots occurring in Portland are doing more harm than good and that they are helping Trump and Republicans. But I’ve seen few people willing to state such perspectives on social media.
If you’ve spent much time on social media, you have likely experienced some trepidation about posting your opinions at some time. One reason is that it can be anxiety-producing to criticize one’s own group; we all have a fear of being rejected by our tribe, whether by the entire tribe or by a significant number of individuals in it. In our extremely polarized environment, there are some hot-button topics that, if not spoken about in a careful way, run the risk of alienating us from our group.
Social media’s inherent lack of nuance can play a role in discouraging criticism of one’s own group. A post criticizing your own group can be perceived by members of that group as being focused on the “wrong thing,” of creating a false equivalency, even if that’s not your intention. Social media posts, by necessity, are simple and lack context, so it’s possible for any message to be perceived as lacking context or focusing on the “wrong thing.” The anxiety that can result from in-group criticism leads to fewer people criticizing their group’s mistakes or mis-steps, which in turn heightens the power of the more extreme voices.
If you’re liberal and can relate to feeling some pressure to fall in line with what you perceive as some unreasonable liberal thinking, then you can perhaps relate to the pressure some moderate conservatives might feel to fall in line as their friends and family become more extreme and polarized. We all want to think the best of the people around us; we want to assume they’re good, reasonable people. Our natural in-group favoritism can lead us astray when the most extreme people hold undue influence.
Political scientist Jennifer McCoy describes part of the process of extreme national polarization as “the center dropping out.” As a nation grows more polarized, the people who want to build bridges and who see where both sides are going astray are increasingly unwilling to speak up. Attempting to build bridges in a polarized society is exhausting: it alienates you from your political tribe, and it might be dangerous (either in a professional sense or, in some very divided countries, actually physically dangerous).
Factor #8: Social media makes like-minded groups grow more extreme
The term group polarization describes the known psychological effect of like-minded groups growing more extreme. A bubble of like-minded people creates a self-affirming, confirmation bias-driven environment, with members mainly focusing on events and interpretations that support the predominant group view.
There are many studies about group polarization; one 2010 study of Twitter users and polarization found that “replies between like-minded individuals strengthen group identity, whereas replies between different-minded individuals reinforce in-group and out-group affiliation.” The 2020 study by Steven Johnson et al showed increased polarization due to Facebook use and found that “Facebook indeed serves as an echo chamber, especially for its conservative users.”
The internet can be viewed as a tool for bringing like-minded people together and giving them spaces to craft and spread ideas. And that’s great in many ways. Before the internet, it would have been hard to get a lot of people from around the world to work together on a math problem; now it’s easy.
But this also has negative effects. Before the internet, it would have been hard to get many people together in one place to discuss whether the earth might be flat; now it’s easy. And before the internet, it would have been hard to get a bunch of people together to discuss their interest in pedophilia and child pornography; now it’s easy.
When we find others who think like us, it lends credibility to ideas and experiences that we otherwise might have doubted, or only temporarily considered.
In the mainstream media and culture, the focus has been mostly on extreme rightwing ideas, like the idea that George Soros is a former Nazi who secretly funds liberal protests, or the fact that half of Trump supporters seem to believe that Trump is working to fight against a pedophilic sex-trafficking operation run by top Democrats.
But a focus on rightwing conspiracy theories misses the point that these dynamics are affecting everyone. If we’re going to effectively confront what may be happening to us, we have to be honest with ourselves, no matter how much our in-group favoritism might lead us to give a pass to people on our side.
If you’re a liberal, this means recognizing that many liberals have extreme, unreasonable views, whether that’s a belief that the government is putting fluoride in the water for nefarious purposes, or a belief that fighting with cops in Portland, Oregon is part of a larger battle against a fascist white supremacist government takeover (as discussed in my interview of a Portland antifa/BLM protester), or a belief that white supremacist government agents are using fireworks to destabilize black communities, or a belief that the Trump administration is using Melania Trump body doubles.
The next several paragraphs will discuss some aspects of extreme liberal views around the topic of police violence and race. This is an obviously sensitive topic and it brings me no pleasure to talk about it. But please bear with me because it’s a necessary part of understanding broader points about how social media may be playing a role in our division.
Regarding the problem of police violence: academics who study it will tell you that it’s a nuanced problem with many factors, and still a lot of uncertainty about the causes. A few points here to show the nuance:
- It’s still unclear how big a factor race plays in police violence. It’s known that more minorities are killed by U.S. police per capita compared to white people, but it’s not clear how much of that is due to a higher rate of interactions with minorities, who disproportionately live in poor and high-crime areas. Also, a significant number of minorities killed by police are killed by police who are minorities.
- The U.S. has many guns and a lot of gun crime compared to other comparable modern countries. Police are anxious about other people having guns and also afraid of other people getting hold of their guns. And this undoubtedly plays a role in escalating police responses.
- Most juries will not find cops guilty, which in turn plays a role in how often prosecutors bring cases.
- People with mental illness are much more likely to be hurt by police, as are people with substance abuse problems.
(While we’re on the subject, for an excellent tool for understanding how police-caused deaths happen in the U.S., I recommend the Guardian’s The Counted project, which allows you to filter on various traits of people killed by police, such as race, age, sex, and armed vs. unarmed.)
If you can see that there’s a lot of nuance around this problem, you can see how some liberals’ overly certain and extreme framings about the problem can be compared to some extreme rightwing conspiracy theories.
To be clear: this isn’t to say that believing race is a factor in police-violence is an extreme view, but it’s to point out that even many liberals can view some liberal framings of this issue as extreme and unreasonable.
To take a few examples of views that most people would categorize as unreasonable:
- Some people believe that U.S. police violence is largely due to our country being a fascist and/or white supremacist state (see above image, or search for ‘fascist state’ on Twitter).
- Some people with that belief also believe that fighting with police and setting fire to buildings is morally justified (for more on this topic, check out my interview with a Portland antifa/BLM protester).
- In a survey, 27% of liberals stated that they wanted to abolish the police.
- Some people who want to abolish the police believe such a thing is possible because a war-torn region of Syria has done so.
Considering the nuance around the police violence issue, the violent protests, looting, and rioting in American cities this year can be viewed as the result of many people holding extreme and unreasonable views. Even if you’re of the opinion that such violence is understandable or even justified, hopefully you can see how reasonable people can disagree about these things. (If criticisms of some of these racial justice views might be more palatable when delivered by a black person, here’s a piece on this topic by John McWhorter.)
If you can see this point of view, even a little bit, then you can perhaps start to understand how some conservatives can look at recent events and think, “Liberals are burning down cities, and making excuses for that behavior, while they lecture us about how we are the hateful, unreasonable ones.” Extreme views in turn create other extreme views; this is a key dynamic in the polarization process.
In some anti-cop and black-rights Facebook groups I’ve spent time in, there is widespread sharing of fake news, misleading framings of events, conspiracy theories, and hateful speech towards cops and white people (a few Facebook examples), just as there are fake and misleading news and hateful views in many pro-Trump Facebook groups.
If you’re a liberal reading this, you may be thinking, “Why are you so focused on this stuff? Clearly the other side is worse.”
It’s of course always possible to debate which side is more correct. But that’s not our focus now. If our goal is understanding and reducing unreasonable group-versus-group animosity, a big part of that is realizing that we’re all individuals, that our political groups are not monolithic. All of us, as humans, are capable of being misguided or deceived in various ways, even the people “on our side.”
The “burn it down” answer to societal problems that some liberals have can be compared to similar “burn it down” views amongst some conservatives. In a study by Michael Bang Peterson and colleagues about destructive so-called “need for chaos” worldviews, 24% of people agreed that “society should be burned to the ground,” and 40% agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” This type of view was found in significant degree amongst Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters. (I interviewed one of the “need for chaos” researchers for my podcast.)
Interestingly, the study authors related this to social media usage, saying that “a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to ‘chaos incitement’ and […] this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media.”
And in Jennifer McCoy’s research on political polarization, she found that Bernie Sanders supporters, as a group, had more Manichean, black-and-white thinking than did Trump supporters as a group (unpublished but discussed in this podcast).
If you’re able to see things from this perspective, you may also start to see that the mainstream liberal-leaning media, and liberals in general, tend to avoid examining or judging the most extreme and unreasonable liberal views. Extreme liberal opinions and conspiracy theories are largely given a pass. And not necessarily for any conspiratorial reasons, but for understandable group psychology reasons: we judge members of our own groups less harshly.
I chose the issues of police violence and racial justice for a reason: because those topics have been especially sacrosanct on the liberal side, with many liberals not wanting to criticize people on their own side. But if you’re able to see how some fairly popular liberal ideas can be considered extreme, even dangerous, then that allows you to see how the current ubiquity of extreme and unreasonable ideas across the political spectrum might point to there being some similar underlying causes.
While we’re on the subject of trying to understand the ubiquity of extreme views, it’s worth pointing out that Covid has almost certainly been a factor. Covid responses have increased financial pain and increased anxiety and depression. Even for people who may be doing okay financially, many have been destabilized by losing their sense of purpose, by having their careers and goals interrupted. If social media has been an accelerant of an existing polarization process, then Covid, like any stress to the system, is another accelerant. Understanding this as a factor in increasing emotional and extreme views can make us more empathetic about the bad behavior of some of our fellow citizens, no matter their politics.
Factor #9: The internet speeds everything up
The internet can be seen as an accelerant of social interaction. Before the internet, it was hard to get content in front of people. Now obviously, it’s very easy. This ease of shareability has many obvious benefits but it also results in people being inundated by a deluge of information with no time to process it effectively.
It’s possible that the period of American history when broadcast TV was our dominant media (roughly the 1950s to the 1980s, before cable TV news) had a calming effect due to most people being influenced by only a few fairly monolithic and aligned sources of information. If TV was an opiate of the masses in that way, perhaps social media can be seen as an amphetamine of the masses, fracturing us with many competing worldviews, and amplifying our reactions.
And it’s possible that social media represents a return to a normal human contentiousness that the radio and TV age only temporarily calmed. As Tom Standage writes in his book Writing on the Wall (which is discussed in Jaime Settle’s Frenemies):
Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however — to what could be termed the era of “really old” media — and the media environment, based on distribution of information from person to person social networks, has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects twenty-first-century Internet media has more in common with seventeenth-century pamphlets or eighteenth-century coffeehouses than with nineteenth-century newspapers or twentieth-century radio and television.
If that’s true, there still seems to be a difference of degree and speed. The internet allows us to quickly align and react in a way that books and pamphlets did not: the Arab Spring protests and George Floyd protests were hastened by social media communications. That speed can have positive aspects, but it can also lead to over-reactions and instability, like a train going too fast around curves. As noted, violence caused by wrong information is more and more common.
And such over-reactions in turn have reactions. Violent behavior caused by extreme framings of problems or misunderstandings will increase feelings of anxiety and animosity in the opposite political party. It may even turn some middle-of-the-road people away from that party.
And we’re all spending an increasing amount of time online, which is another accelerant. And Covid has increased our collective time spent online while depriving us of the tempering influence of normal social interactions, and this is probably another accelerant.
The internet serves to wire us all together more and more tightly, and one result of this is that as a societal body, our nerves are more sensitive, more frayed. We’re all more on edge.
Factor #10: Social media is perceived as an important battleground
Despite social media content being made by a small percentage of people, it’s perceived by many as being an important “arena of conflict,” a place where important societal battles are being fought, a place to engage with “the enemy.”
In a paper by Shannon McGregor about news coverage during the 2016 election, she examines how journalists cover social media. She explains, “I find that despite social media users not reflecting the electorate, the press reported online sentiments and trends as a form of public opinion that services the horserace narrative and complements survey polling and vox populi quotes” and that “journalists worried about an overreliance on social media to inform coverage.”
Part of this is related to budgetary cuts to newspapers and journalism in general; it’s much easier and cheaper to cover social media than it is to do in-depth journalism.
In my own research into online deception, I’ve been surprised how often fake and deceptive social media accounts are featured in news stories. In a piece I wrote examining an almost-certainly-deceptive pro-Trump Twitter account with 52,000 followers, that account’s tweets had been featured in three pieces (two low-quality, politically biased news sites and one popular mainstream news site).
Social media being covered as news could help explain why older Americans seem to be most polarized. If the younger generation is more accustomed to social media culture, perhaps they have become more accustomed to some of the aspects of social media discussed in this piece and are less agitated by it, while older Americans may see extreme social media posts and hateful online interactions and believe that people have become more unreasonable than they actually are.
What can we do about this?
When reading this, you may have been thinking, “No matter how polarization happens, there’s still a lot to be angry about right now.”
And yes, there is. But we can still be passionate and unrestrained in pursuing our political goals while keeping in mind that how we interact with people, in person and online, plays a role in either bringing us closer together or driving us farther apart.
And working to speak carefully and build bridges will likely do more to achieve our political goals than will any us-versus-them thinking. For one thing, consider how close the 2016 election was. A little bit of good will and empathy can go a long way to nudging a few middle-of-the-road people over to your side. Anger and good-versus-evil narratives definitely will not.
To be clear: this doesn’t mean you have to be a saint and be nice to everyone. The path to decreasing political polarization is building more bridges between the most reasonable and least extreme people. Remember that most of the population isn’t that extreme and wants to work together. You don’t have to be respectful to specific people who are extreme, unreasonable, and rude; criticizing them is a valid option, as is ignoring them.
If we’re going to get better, it might be up to us.
If you haven’t noticed, the powerful leaders and influencers we’d usually expect to build bridges and bring us together aren’t doing a good job. In other countries that have fallen apart, there were probably many ordinary people, people like us, assuming that the people in charge would take care of things, that it wasn’t our responsibility. But maybe the only way to avoid worst case scenarios is by all of us taking our responsibilities seriously and attempting to turn the tide against the powerful forces that threaten to bring us down.
Each of us has the ability to influence many other people in our lives, who in turn can influence others. We all have much more power than we tend to believe.
Here are some ideas for ways we can better use social media to help decrease political anger and polarization:
- Speak carefully. Avoid speaking in inaccurate and all-encompassing “all Trump supporters are x” ways. Focus your criticisms and ire on the people you know are directly at fault (e.g., political leaders), and not the mass of citizens whose motives and beliefs are varied and hard to know. This will make your language more persuasive and less likely to cause anger.
- Make points and avoid angry interactions. If you’re being verbally abused, remember that they’re just one person and they don’t represent every member of that group. It’s okay to make your point and then leave a conversation and not respond further. Fighting on social media doesn’t accomplish much and will mainly serve to make everyone more angry. While you don’t have to be nice to everyone, you’d be surprised how remaining respectful and reasonable will sometimes make someone who’s angry apologize and be more polite.
- Be skeptical of simplistic, emotional takes. If you are someone who often immediately shares the latest outrage upon seeing someone else share it online, you are probably sharing many takes that are un-nuanced and lack context. Our political and cultural bubbles result in us seeing and consuming a lot of biased takes. If you see a simplistic, emotional post, especially if it’s something that’s hard to believe, spend a little time researching it before you share it.
- Be aware of how our political bubbles can cause us to accept extreme and unreasonable views. We are all influenced by the people around us. As anxiety levels ramp up and extreme views become more common, we should be especially on guard against this because as one group grows more extreme and angry, the other group will tend to take extreme opposite stances in reaction to the first group’s stances, no matter how logical that may be. We should speak up when we feel people in our group are being unreasonable because this is the way we will lower the heat on both sides.
- Don’t be afraid to change your mind and admit mistakes. We all need to accept that we will frequently make mistakes, whether that’s phrasing things badly, or thinking about things wrongly. It is not a bad thing to change your mind, and by doing that publicly, and admitting when you’re wrong, and apologizing, we’ll influence others to emulate our behavior.
- Show how you don’t fit into the stereotypes of your group. One of the ways to combat group-versus-group animosity is to demonstrate that we don’t fit neatly into the stereotypical traits of our political group. We can be living examples of how we all have much more nuance and complexity than is perceived. For example, if you’re a rancher who’s a Second Amendment proponent but who mostly votes Democrat because you believe in a strong social safety net, sharing your views will weaken group associations and group-related animosity. Or if you’re a conservative who’s vegan and who drives an electric car: sharing that about yourself will help break down group stereotypes. The political scientist Jaime Settle, who researched how Facebook divides us, points to this as one of the things we can all do to counter out-group animosity. But this admittedly takes courage.
Towards a new, improved media literacy
If social media does work to fracture society, we’ll need more education about how that happens. A lot of the work in this area is focused on teaching people how to differentiate fake news from real news, or focused on specific features or algorithms.
But if it’s true that online communication tools have inherently polarizing effects, then we’ll need to broaden the scope of this education. We may need more “political literacy” in the form of educating people about how, despite perceptions, most people have much in common. And we may need more “psychological literacy” in the form of educating people about our social and emotional instincts and how those can lead us to some dark places.
Whether social media is a major factor or not, we’ll need more awareness of the fact that we’re all humans trying to find our way in the world, that we are all flawed and weak in various ways, that we’re all at the whim of circumstances beyond our control, whether that be our genetics, our environment, our experiences. Or, if you prefer a more religious way of looking at the same idea: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
We’ll all need to cut each other some slack and be more charitable and less righteous. (If I had to recommend one book to help understand and empathize with other political viewpoints, I’d recommend Jon Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.”)
To avoid worst-case polarization outcomes, we’ll need more people to engage in bridge-building. And this is admittedly difficult. Our instincts are to simplify problems down to good-versus-bad, us-versus-them framings, not to constantly seek out nuance and context. Our instincts are to avoid offending people in our own group, not to withhold judgment and attempt to see the best in people.
One of the main obstacles to bridge-building is that extreme views are exciting and “sexy” narratives; they draw people in by engaging their emotions. It’s not that exciting to attempt to find nuance and bring people together. Such attempts are often perceived as weak and ineffectual, even by people on one’s own side, so it can be a lonely path. If we’re to avoid worst-case scenarios, we’ll likely need to find ways to make the bridge-building path have more of an exciting narrative, and perhaps we can do this by drawing attention to the fact that it is an uphill, challenging fight against formidable psychological and social forces.
There are people and organizations attempting to do this work. For example, there’s a group called Braver Angels that is aimed at improving our political discourse, and on their site they put it well:
“To meet the current moment, at this time of national crisis, we need more than civility. We need to challenge ourselves to work together when we disagree. We need bravery.”
Who am I?
I’m Zachary Elwood. I have a psychology/behavior-focused podcast called People Who Read People where I’ve recently been discussing political topics with various experts. Here are some episodes related to politics and polarization. I’ve also done some research into online deception and fake accounts; my research has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed. And I’m a former professional poker player who’s written several books on poker tells (i.e., poker behavior).
Thanks to Molly Elwood, Austin Schaefer, Daniel Steinberg, and Shawn Kilburn for comments and edits on this piece.
If you liked this piece, you may enjoy these related resources:
- Jaime Settle’s book Frenemies, about how Facebook increases polarization and my interview of Jaime for my podcast
- My interview of Jennifer McCoy about polarization
- My podcast episodes on political polarization-related topics