Social media's polarizing effects

 Image source:  NYMAG

Image source: NYMAG

By Kevin Wagner

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony in front of Congress illustrates two very important points about social media. Every member of Congress knows they have to be on it, and very few understand why. While many members are slow to catch-on, their staffers know the internet organized through social media platforms is the political sphere of the modern age.  More and more Americans are moving away from broadcast and even cable television, and the future of Congress will increasingly be won or lost online. 

President Trump’s frequent use of Twitter has elevated that social media platform into a must-read for followers of U.S. politics  While this attention has increased the focus on Twitter and social media generally, scholars have been considering the importance of this new form of political communication for some time.  Social media raises some significant issues about national, and even local campaigns.

While it might initially appear that social media is just another form of electronic media, that conclusion is superficial. Social media is an open platform that provides an easy entrance point for users. It shifts the traditional mass media model, which had a few speaking to many, into a far more interactive and chaotic environment. It is a sphere with few, if any, gatekeepers, and provides a direct and unmediated channel between political actors and voters. The new media platforms shift political communication by changing who is speaking, and how we are listening.

Members of Congress no longer need to speak through the traditional media; their social media is its own network. This presents an interesting opportunity with few accepted protocols or even traditional courtesies. Some members of Congress have been known to live tweet during the State of the Union so as to provide a competing commentary to the President or the cable and broadcast news. This is the new normal. The country is continually bombarded with countless streams of competing political views.

What this ultimately means is less clear. Initially, the openness of the forum led some to champion it as a means to encourage democracy and political participation. It was also seen as a way to organize opposition when traditional media was unobtainable. Indeed, early findings suggest that participation rates for users of social media have risen. For hopeful congressional candidates, this provides a campaign strategy that does not require a massive television budget.

However, the larger implications of social media are starting to appear increasingly less laudable. Our research suggests that people tend to pursue the information that is consistent with preexisting beliefs and shun competing narratives. This selection bias in the use of social media is altering the balance of information individuals bring to bear when forming opinion, and as a result, creating a new and increasingly polarized electorate in the United States. This polarization then gets reflected in electoral choices and the makeup of Congress.

While scholars have theorized about polarization rates in Congress being caused by social media, we tested the notion. In our most recent work, Jason Gainous and I looked directly at social media consumption across policy areas. We found that selective exposure to social media consistently predicts attitude extremity across all four of our policy areas. No matter the policy area, from the economy to foreign affairs, selective exposure to social media results in polarized attitudes. Perhaps most surprising, the results were consistent and robust through several modeling strategies.

The Internet contributes not just to the polarized climate in the United States today, but is also likely contributing to increasingly divergent beliefs and attitudes across multiple policy domains. Those attitudes are increasingly reflected in Congress. While some might want to blame the Tweeter-in-Chief, it is the political media environment and how we use it that is creating this antagonistic new reality.

Kevin Wagner is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.