Social media is making a bad political situation worse

“it’s often difficult to understand which comes first: a polarized situation or the social media that aggravates that situation. Rather, it’s become a self-reinforcing system.”

“Animosity toward members of opposing parties is very high even though our divisions over policy preferences don’t appear to have grown, according to new research published in Science magazine. The paper brings together a number of different studies on the topic and is written by scholars from six disciplines who found that, these days, we’re more likely to hate the opposing side and consider them to be “different,” “dislikable,” and “immoral.” The result is a “political sectarianism” in which one’s party identity seems to come first, before policy, religion, or common ground. Political identity, in turn, shapes our other views instead of the other way around. For example, after seeing a clip of Donald Trump espousing a liberal policy, followers exhibited a more liberal attitude, according to the paper, which presumes Democrats would do the same for their political leaders.”

“The results of this kind of alignment are disastrous for a functioning democracy. As the researchers argue, “holding opposing partisans in contempt on the basis of their identity alone precludes innovative cross-party solutions and mutually beneficial compromises.””

“Then there’s distrust — encouraged by the president — of facts and journalism organizations, which are necessary to protect democracy. A series of Pew Research Center polls shows that Republicans rely on and trust fewer news sites for politics than they used to, with Fox News, Trump’s mouthpiece and a fount of disinformation, being one of few sources they regularly read and believe. However, research by Andy Guess, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, looks at web traffic rather than people’s survey responses to reveal that there’s considerable and consistent overlap in media consumption between the parties, except among a smaller set of extremists. This suggests many people might be reading the same sources but coming to totally different conclusions. Wildly divergent interpretations of the same news is a more difficult problem to fix.”

“Hyperpartisanship, 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 Facebook has put less of an emphasis on news and more on engagement, and that posts with strong, emotional language have more engagement. We also know Facebook has continually promoted Groups since 2016, which can function as their own echo chambers, even without algorithmic help. YouTube, whose algorithms like other platforms were designed to make people spend more time on the site, has been shown to radicalize people through inflammatory messaging. Most recently, it has been awash in election misinformation.”

“The share of Americans who often get their news from social media grew 10 percentage points to 28 percent last year, according to Pew. Those who mainly get their news that way were also less informed about current events and more likely to have been exposed to conspiracy theories.”

“A new study from the University of Virginia found increased Facebook usage among conservatives is associated with reading more conservative sites than they normally do. The effect was less dramatic among liberals.

The study’s authors conjectured that the way Facebook works might have something to do with this outcome. In addition to algorithms favoring engagement, the very structure of Facebook limits who we talk to: You have to “friend” others to see their posts, meaning you’re less likely to see people outside of your real-life friends and family, who are more likely to have similar lives and viewpoints. Facebook also tweaked its algorithms after the 2016 election to promote posts from friends and family and show far fewer posts from news outlets, which likely further contributed to filter bubbles and division.”

“Research highlighted in the Wall Street Journal suggests that people on social media do see opposing viewpoints. But since sites like Facebook are calibrated to highlight posts that elicit reactions, we’re seeing the most acerbic of opposing views, which can lead people to be even more repelled by them. The result is even more entrenched viewpoints and more polarization.”

““It’s not just a matter of coming into contact with the other side,” Pariser told Recode about how his conception of filter bubbles has changed since he first coined the term. “It’s doing so in a way that leads us to greater understanding.””

In praise of polarization

“Polarization can create the conditions for overdue reckonings, for broader coalitions. When the parties were mixed, and racially conservative whites were seen as the key swing vote, racial issues were suppressed in American politics. The passage of the Civil Rights Act is the exception that proves the rule: Civil rights laws had been blocked in Congress for decades, and the rupture required to unblock them broke the party system of that era. The polarization of the parties around race and ideology — a story I tell in detail in my book Why We’re Polarized — created an incentive for one party, at least, to prioritize issues of racial justice.

As the parties became more polarized around racial issues, it became much safer for Democratic politicians to embrace racial issues,” says Christopher Stout, a political scientist at Oregon State University and the author of Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization, and Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama. “Even in 2008, there was a lot of hesitancy to talk about race. Think back to Obama and Jeremiah Wright. But as white working-class voters who were racially conservative left the Democratic Party, it created space for Democrats to talk about race and be rewarded for it rather than punished for it.

Joe Biden’s career reflects the arc of this change. As he has gotten in trouble for saying, when he entered Congress, in the 1970s, he worked often with conservative, segregationist Democrats. These weren’t just coalitions of expedience: He took positions on issues like crime and busing meant to mollify racially conservative white voters. But Biden changed alongside his party. By 2008, those Democrats were gone, and Biden was Obama’s vice president, in an administration that cemented the Democratic Party’s identity as the party of a multiethnic America.”

“Identity politics is often tossed around as a slur, an epithet. A politics of identity is said to be exclusionary, pitting Americans against each other, denying them the common ground of shared experience. This is oft-made criticism of “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan, by those who prefer “all lives matter.” But we are seeing the rebuttal to that argument in the political reality of this moment, where 91 percent of Democrats — and 92 percent of white Democrats — express support for Black Lives Matter (as do 40 percent of Republicans). A politics of identity can be inclusionary, building bridges across experiences that would otherwise remain siloed.”

“Identity is never singular. We have many identities, some of them linked together, some of them sitting in tension. The story of modern political polarization is identities fusing together: Black, Jewish, liberal, atheist, urbanite — Democrat. White, evangelical, rural, conservative, hunter — Republican. Identity fusion creates stronger bonds of solidarity between those who share identities, and can create more conflict with those who become the out-group. It is both inclusionary and exclusionary. But for groups who’ve long been marginalized, who haven’t had the power to force their concerns and their experiences to the forefront of national politics, it can be transformative.
There is no action without reaction, of course. The promise of change that thrills some Americans unnerves others. Trump is president because Obama was president. We will not suddenly find agreement on America’s oldest divides, easy redemption for our oldest sins. And our political system is designed to reflect consensus, not resolve conflict. This is why, in part, polarization is so feared: It breeds government paralysis, wanton obstruction, dangerous brinksmanship.

Even so, we should prefer the difficulties of political conflict to the injustice of suppression. Police brutality is as old as America, but it has been rare for either of our major political parties to take it seriously, much less make it — and racial inequality more broadly — central to their agendas. Change at the level America needs may not be likely, but it would be impossible if neither party was willing to fight for it. That one is beginning to do so now is the product of relentless organizing, activism, and courage among Black Americans, but it is also the product of polarization, sorting, and identity politics.”

Our Caesar Can the country come back from Trump? The Republic already looks like Rome in ruins.

“in so many ways, ancient Rome is profoundly different from the modern U.S. It had no written constitution; it barely had a functioning state or a unified professional military insulated from politics. Many leaders were absent from Rome for long stretches of time as they waged military campaigns abroad. There was no established international order, no advanced technology, and only the barest of welfare safety nets.
But there is a reason the Founding Fathers thought it was worth deep study. They saw the destabilizing consequences of a slaveholding republic expanding its territory and becoming a vast, regional hegemon. And they were acutely aware of how, in its final century and a half, an astonishing republican success story unraveled into a profoundly polarized polity, increasingly beset by violence, shedding one established republican norm after another, its elites fighting among themselves in a zero-sum struggle for power. And they saw how the weakening of those norms and the inability to compromise and mounting inequalities slowly corroded republican institutions. And saw, too, with the benefit of hindsight, where that ultimately led: to strongman rule, a dictatorship.”

How “truth decay” is harming America’s coronavirus recovery

“Truth decay encompasses four trends, each of which is relevant to what we’re experiencing now.
The first is increasing disagreement about facts and data. An example in this context would be the disagreement about the safety of vaccines and whether people will take them once they’re made and distributed.

The second trend is the increased blurring of the line between fact and opinion. This is caused a lot by commentary in cable news or social media, places where facts and opinion are mixed together and make it really hard to determine what’s real and what’s someone’s opinion or analysis.

The third trend is the increasing volume of opinion compared to fact. You’re just seeing a lot more opinion out there. If you’re looking for facts, you have to work pretty hard to dig through all that commentary before you can actually find the raw facts you might be looking for.

Finally, declining trust in key institutions that provide information. We’re experiencing this now with the government and the media.

Put together, people are not sure what’s true what’s not, and they don’t even really know where to turn to find factual information they’re looking for.”

“Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, seems to be the guy providing the media and the public with the necessary facts about the coronavirus right now. But because the president undercuts him and disagrees with a lot of what he says, he’s become somewhat of a polarizing figure. If you’re a Trump fan, you might not be a Fauci fan, and vice versa.

At such a crucial time, how is the expertise of someone like Fauci or other public health experts not innately trusted?”

“people like to confirm their own beliefs. They don’t necessarily want to hear information that disagrees with their views, and it leads people to reject information from experts that doesn’t fit their narrative.”

“I’m skeptical this moment will lead to only facts coming from the top and an extra effort from the bottom to seek facts. Tens of thousands of Americans have died, millions have fallen ill, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a change. The US isn’t rising to the moment.”

“this is a national failure because it prevents us from making progress on the big issues that our country needs to confront if we want to continue being a prosperous nation and maintain the position we have in the world.”

How polarization shaped Americans’ responses to coronavirus, in one chart

“As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in late February and early March, President Trump and his allies in the conservative media adopted a skeptical tone. Trump said that “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear;” Fox Business host Trish Regan called it “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”

Some preliminary early data suggests that Trump and Fox downplaying the pandemic made Trump supporters less likely to take the disease seriously early on.”

“on March 13, Trump declared a national emergency over coronavirus, and, afterward, started taking the virus more seriously in public rhetoric and response. And starting on March 13, the partisan tilt disappears”

“Schaffner’s research here is very preliminary. It’s worth noting that there are several possible confounding variables, including the fact that some of the hardest-hit earlier states were blue-leaning coastal ones like Washington, California, and New York.

But his findings are consistent with early polling on coronavirus showing the same partisan gap, with Democrats consistently saying they were more likely to take individual action on coronavirus than Republicans.

It also fits with what we’ve observed more broadly during the Trump administration: The president’s stance on something causes Republicans to align with it and Democrats to oppose it, as well as a large, pre-Trump body of research on public opinion suggesting that voters often take cues on complex policy issues from trusted elites.”

“as evidence continues to mount for a partisan gap in coronavirus response early on, we should take seriously the possibility that Trump returning to downplaying the risks of the virus would also lead to a vast swath of the American public ignoring public health advice — and thus contributing to the pandemic’s rapid spread.”