Social Media Interaction Does Not Improve Political Knowledge, but It Does Polarize Us

“Two new political science studies investigate how all of this time spent on social media affects our politics. The first asks what, if anything, digital denizens learn about politics, while the second develops a model to explain how social media interactions spark culture wars by sorting people into antagonistic political tribes.
Published in the Journal of Communication, the first study finds that whatever else millions of social media devotees learn from their online activity—catching up with friends and finding new ones, checking out product reviews, and watching cat videos—one thing they do not do is learn about is politics.

There are “no observable political knowledge gains from using Facebook, Twitter,
or SNS [social network sites] in general; when measuring policy-specific, campaign-related, or general political knowledge; in election and routine periods; and when individuals use social media specifically for news or for more general purposes,” find Israeli communications researchers Eran Amsalem and Alon Zoizner. They reached this conclusion after parsing data involving more than 440,000 subjects in a pre-registered meta-analysis of 76 different studies on the effect of social media on political knowledge.

One minor exception to this sweeping conclusion is that research using experimental setups finds small but statistically significant knowledge gains from using social media. However, in such experiments, Amsalem and Zoizner note that subjects are given no choice over what political information they see, so they may be artificially induced to pay greater attention to it than they ordinarily would scrolling out in the wild. The experiments also fail to account for information decay, since they test their subjects’ political knowledge gains immediately after exposure to it. “Considering these caveats, our conclusion remains that social media contribute little, if at all, to political knowledge,” write the authors.”

“Törnberg observes that accumulating data indicate that political polarization in the U.S. and other countries is not growing because people are increasingly isolating themselves with like-minded folks in social media echo chambers that confirm the righteousness of their views. Instead, Törnberg notes that the “empirical literature suggests that digitalization does not appear to lead to a reduction of interaction across political divide, but quite the opposite: it confronts us with diverse individuals, perspectives, and viewpoints, often in contentious ways.” So how might social media contribute to the apparent increase in partisan rancor? Törnberg develops a model showing how political disputes, controversies, and debates on nonlocal social media can drive people to adopt increasingly extreme positions.

Back in the good old days, political and other differences of opinion were largely local and neighbors had many cross-cutting issues and commonalities that moderated their views of those who disagreed with them. “Social conflict is sustainable as long as there are multiple and non-overlapping lines of disagreement: we may differ on our views on one issue but agree on another; we may vote differently, but if we support the same football team or go to the same church, there remains space for interpersonal respect,” writes Törnberg. “The recent rise in polarization is thus expressive of a gradual breakdown of this cohesive glue, driven by a gradual alignment of social, economic, geographic, and ideological differences and conflicts.””

“Based on the results of his model, Törnberg argues that we need to rethink “digital media as not merely arenas for rational deliberation and political debate but as spaces for social identity formation and for symbolic displays of solidarity with allies and difference from outgroups. Digital media do not isolate us from opposing ideas; au contraire, they throw us into a national political war, in which we are forced to take sides.””

The Government Can’t Fix Social Media Moderation and Should Not Try

“Despite their increasingly bitter differences, Democrats and Republicans generally agree that content moderation by social media companies is haphazard at best. But while Democrats tend to think the main problem is too much speech of the wrong sort, Republicans complain that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are biased against them.
The government cannot resolve this dispute and should not try. Siding with the critics who complain about online “misinformation” poses an obvious threat to free inquiry and open debate. And while attempting to mandate evenhandedness might seem more consistent with those values, it undermines the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment in a more subtle but equally troubling way.”

India Wants Twitter To Participate in Government Censorship

“On Tuesday, Twitter announced that it had filed suit against the Indian government alleging that it interpreted a suite of 2021 laws too broadly when ordering the company to censor dissident users in the country. The lawsuit comes in response to increased pressure from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in recent weeks has ordered Twitter to block the posts and accounts of dissidents. According to CNN, a source familiar with the suit said that the company will attempt to show that the government’s orders “demonstrate excessive use of powers and are disproportionate.”

The 2021 regulations Twitter is now fighting gave India’s government the ability to demand that social media companies block certain posts or accounts in the country. Further, the Indian government has required social media companies to locate their compliance officers within the country so that they can be held criminally liable if the company fails to comply with government orders.

While Twitter has complied with orders, the suit marks a major act of resistance against the Indian government’s calls to censor dissident content. In 2021, WhatsApp filed a similar suit, attempting to prevent the government from forcing the company to make all messages “traceable” upon request. That order, according to the company, would “severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally[.]” WhatApp’s suit is still ongoing.”

Two GOP judges just stripped social media companies of basic First Amendment rights

“The decision in NetChoice v. Paxton reinstates an unconstitutional Texas law that seizes control of the major social media platforms’ content moderation process, requiring them to either carry content that those platforms do not wish to publish or be so restrictive it would render the platforms unusable. This law is unconstitutional because the First Amendment prohibits the government from ordering private companies or individuals to publish speech that they do not wish to be associated with.”

“Although the court did not identify which of the three judges dissented, it’s not hard to guess how the votes broke down. The panel includes Judge Leslie Southwick, a relatively moderate conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, as well as two notoriously right-wing judges.
Judge Edith Jones is a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan when she was just 35 years old. Since then, she’s developed a reputation as an especially caustic conservative — Jones once told a liberal colleague to “shut up” during a court hearing, and she joined an opinion arguing that a man should be executed despite the fact that his lawyer slept through much of his trial.

The third judge, Andy Oldham, is a young Trump appointee who clerked for Justice Samuel Alito. Among other things, Oldham is the author of a Fifth Circuit opinion permitting a Trump-appointed district judge to seize control of much of the nation’s policy governing the US-Mexico border.

It is likely, but not entirely certain, that Jones and Oldham are right-wing outliers even when compared to the median justice on the Supreme Court. In 2021, Justice Clarence Thomas published an opinion expressing sympathy for the “common carrier” theory Texas relies on in NetChoice. But that opinion was joined by no other justice.

In any event, given the enormous disruption the Fifth Circuit’s NetChoice decision is likely to create for social media companies, it is likely that they will ask the Supreme Court to intervene very soon. We should know in very short order, in other words, whether the Supreme Court intends to write social media out of the First Amendment.”

Republicans Defend Texas Social Media Law—and Compelled Speech

“A blatantly unconstitutional Texas social media law can start being enforced unless the Supreme Court steps in. The law was blocked by a U.S. district court last year after internet advocacy and trade groups challenged it. But a new order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit means Texas can begin enforcement of its social media law—and wreak havoc on the internet as we know it in the process.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA)—the groups that filed the lawsuit against the Texas social media law—have now submitted an emergency petition to the Supreme Court asking it to intervene. Meanwhile, Texas and a slew of other states with Republican leaders are advocating for the law, which would treat large social media platforms like common carriers (such as railroads and telephone companies) that have a legal obligation to serve everyone.

How we got here: The Texas social media law (H.B. 20) bans large platforms from engaging in many forms of content moderation—including rejecting unwanted content outright, limiting its reach, or attaching disclaimers to it—based on the viewpoint said content conveys. It’s similar to legislation passed (and blocked, for now) in Florida.

Borrowing a page from George Orwell, supporters like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott say the law is designed to protect free speech. But in addition to protecting people and private entities from censorship, the First Amendment also protects against them being compelled by the government to speak or host certain messages—which is exactly what H.B. 20 does.

Accordingly, Judge Robert Pitman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas held last December that H.B. 20 violated the First Amendment and issued a preliminary injunction against enforcing it.

But Texas appealed, and last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay on the lower court’s decision—meaning Texas can start immediately enforcing the social media law.

The 5th Circuit did not offer an opinion explaining its reasoning, so it’s hard to say what’s going on there. In any event, NetChoice and the CCIA are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.”

There are good reasons why Elon wants Twitter

“Twitter is, in many ways, a platform of the elite. While it can sometimes elevate the voices of ordinary people who don’t command massive followings on the platform, it’s most powerful as a communication tool for already prominent and influential people.

Though it has about 200 million daily users, Twitter has had an outsized role in shaping politics, particularly in the US as the former platform of choice for Trump until the end of his presidency, when he was permanently suspended for tweeting in support of the January 6 Capitol riot.”

“Twitter is distinct from Facebook and Google in that the financial markets don’t truly reflect its full power, which is why Musk can entertain the idea of buying the entire company with a fraction of his total estimated net worth of over $220 billion.”

“In its new era, Twitter has begun balancing its commitment to letting people say what they want and minimizing the harms that people can do using its platform. For Musk, there’s value in being the person who sets those terms, and he has made it clear that he will err on the side of allowing as much controversial speech as possible.”

Does banning extremists online work? It depends.

“It’s been over a year since Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned an array of domestic extremist networks, including QAnon, boogaloo, and Oath Keepers, that had flourished on their platforms leading up to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Around the same time, these companies also banned President Donald Trump, who was accused of amplifying these groups and their calls for violence.

So did the “Great Deplatforming” work? There is growing evidence that deplatforming these groups did limit their presence and influence online, though it’s still hard to determine exactly how it has impacted their offline activities and membership.

While extremist groups have dispersed to alternative platforms like Telegram, Parler, and Gab, they have had a harder time growing their online numbers at the same rate as when they were on the more mainstream social media apps, several researchers who study extremism told Recode. Although the overall effects of deplatforming are far-reaching and difficult to measure in full, several academic studies about the phenomenon over the past few years, as well as data compiled by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs for Recode, support some of these experts’ observations.

“The broad reach of these groups has really diminished,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. “Yes, they still operate on alternative platforms … but in the first layer of assessment that we might do, it’s the mainstream platforms that matter most.” That’s because extremists can reach more people on these popular platforms; in addition to recruiting new members, they can influence mainstream discussions and narratives in a way they can’t on more niche alternative platforms.”

Facebook Is a Snitch

“”Social media has become a significant source of information for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law noted in a report released last week. “The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department are among the many federal agencies that routinely monitor social platforms, for purposes ranging from conducting investigations to identifying threats to screening travelers and immigrants.””