ARTICLE BY JACOB AUSUBEL
How much is social media to blame for political polarization? The answer is more ambiguous than it might appear at first glance. While social media is certainly one cause of polarization, other contributing factors should not be downplayed.
Back in the early 1990s, before the advent of social media, a wide ideological gap already existed between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats tended to be more socially liberal, and more in favor of governmental intervention in the economy. By contrast, Republicans were more socially conservative, and more opposed to economic regulations.
From 1994 to 2014, this ideological gap grew wider, as a recent Pew Research study illustrates. Back in 1994, only 8 percent of Democrats were consistent liberals. In 2014, the number was 38 percent. During the same 20 years, the number of Republicans identifying as consistent conservatives rose from 23 percent to 33 percent. In fact, there is relatively little ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans today. 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat.
One explanation for increased polarization is the rise of social media. From 1994 to 2014, a number of social media outlets were launched, including Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. Social media fundamentally changed the way in which Americans consumed the news. Instead of reading newspapers, Americans, particularly millennials, get much of their news from social media. According to another Pew Research study, 54 percent of Americans regularly read a newspaper in 2004. In 2012, the number was only 38 percent. In fact, only 29 percent of Americans reported reading a newspaper the previous day.
By contrast, 44 percent of Americans read or watch news stories on Facebook. 61 percent of millennials obtained their news from Facebook and Twitter. This trend is problematic, because people often consume online news that confirms and reinforces their views. In one study, 47 percent of staunch conservatives said that the Facebook posts they saw were nearly always or mostly in line with their own views. 32 percent of staunch liberals gave the same observation. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “echo chamber effect.”
For context, the typical Facebook user can see 1,500 possible stories every time he or she logs onto the website. For this reason, Facebook uses an algorithm to filter the results people see. Considerations include the frequency with which a person interacts with a given person or page, how many likes and comments a person or page receives from shared friends, and how much a person has interacted with a given type of post (e.g. photo, article, video) in the past.
The Facebook algorithm helps explain the “echo chamber effect.” Democrats tend to interact with other Democrats on Facebook, and like pages with a liberal slant. Likewise, Republicans are often friends with fellow Republicans, and like pages with a conservative slant. The polarization of the electorate is so severe, in fact, that nearly half of Hillary Clinton’s supporters and a third of Trump’s backers have no close Facebook friends backing the other candidate. Due to these ideological differences, Democrats consume largely liberal news, while Republicans consume largely conservative news.
However, social media is only partially responsible for the “echo chamber effect.” At least to a certain degree, demographics and, more specifically, where people decide to live plays a part. For example, one Pew Research study highlighted the stark differences in liberals’ and conservatives’ lifestyle preferences. Far more liberals than conservatives placed importance on a community’s racial and ethnic diversity (76% to 20%). Meanwhile, 57% of conservatives, and only 17% of liberals, emphasized living in a place where many people shared their religious faith. 77 percent of liberals wanted to live somewhere where “the houses [were] smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants [were] within walking distance.” On the other hand, a nearly equal number of conservatives, 75 percent, preferred to live somewhere where “the houses [were] larger and further apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants [were] several miles away.”
These lifestyle preferences help explain why Democrats live disproportionately in cities, and Republicans in suburbs and rural areas. In fact, 27 of the nation’s 30 most populous cities voted Democratic in the 2012 presidential election. By contrast, Republicans won the majority of suburban and rural counties. Since liberals and conservatives are so geographically isolated from each other, the average Democrat might not interact with many Republicans, and vice versa. Due to a lack of ideological arguments, he or she might become complacent in his or her beliefs.
In short, social media should only get some of the blame for political polarization. While social media certainly contributes to the problem, the disagreements on Facebook and Twitter are partially reflections of an already polarized society. The sad truth is that there will continue to be extreme polarization, no matter how social media outlets change their news feed algorithms. The only way to significantly improve the situation is if the United States undergoes a paradigm shift. Liberals and conservatives need to engage more with one another, and people should be less wary of reading news stories that do not fit neatly with their pre-existing views. There is much work to be done to reduce political polarization in the United States.