Is Social Media Really Polarizing Politics?

by Mia Mercado
Depressed woman sitting on floor with mobile phone
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Our social feeds are echo chambers. That’s probably not new or surprising information to anyone who has a Facebook account. But are our polarized social feeds what’s dividing us by political party offline? Maybe not. One recent study suggests social media isn’t the cause of political polarization — at least, not for everyone, and not solely.

This new study was conducted by researchers from Stanford and Brown Universities and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors of this study compared the people who use social media the most to those who use it the least. These delineations also correspond with age: 80 percent of Americans aged 18 to 39 used social media in 2012; the same is true for less than 20 percent of Americans age 75 and older. Researchers used nine different metrics to gauge shifts in political polarization from the years 1996 to 2012, including everything from feelings toward each party to straight-ticket voting to religious ideologies. Basically, they looked at shifts both in mindset and what happened in the voting booth.

What they found was surprising: While everyone is becoming more politically polarized to some degree, older people are becoming more polarized than young people. In other words, political polarization is increasing the most among people who use social media the least.

To put it in numbers: Between 1996 and 2012, polarization grew 0.38 index points for people aged 75 and older; it only increased 0.05 index points for people between the ages of 18 and 39. That’s a pretty significant difference and counterintuitive to the notion that social media is makes us more politically polarized.

The data only goes to 2012. So, the results come with the caveat of not looking directly the 2016 election. However, these finding are still surprising given when we know about our polarized social feeds.

Our Social Feeds Are Echo Chambers

What you see on Facebook is drastically different depending on your political affiliation. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you likely missed the pro-Trump piece that had over 1.5 million shares. The same goes for conversations about race on social media: 67 percent of white social media users say that none of things they post or share pertain to race; however, 28 percent of black social media users say most or some of what they post relates to race. These trends are also reflected in the content racial demographics see on their respective feeds. Social media users who are black are almost twice as likely to see social posts related to race than social media users who are white.

But It's Not Just Our Social Feeds

Regardless, there are evidently other factors making us more politically polarized. (And as a country, we are growing more politically polarized.) So, if can’t blame Zuckerberg, what’s driving us further apart ideologically?

Matthew Gentzkow, one of the authors of the new study, told Vox he has two theories. “One is stuff that has nothing to do with media at all but is structural, like increasing income inequality,” he says. “The second is non-digital media, and cable TV and talk radio in particular.”

Where and how we get our news also differs depending on political affiliation. In the 2016 election, 40 percent of Trump supporters primarily got their news from Fox News. The same was true for 3 percent of Clinton supporters. Political pundits like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity cater primarily to people over the age of 65. Essentially, regardless of age and where we get our media, we are all living in an echo chamber.

Should We Let Other Voices In?

Diversity is good for us; research has proven that it makes us smarter. What's more, this applies to both diverse individual expertise and social diversity. As this piece from Scientific American states, “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.” So, while our social feeds are solely to blame, it’s healthy to pop our ideological bubbles every so often.

I’m not saying we all need to start watching Fox News. (You can quote me as literally never saying that.) But educating ourselves of all sides of issues we’re passionate about can help us under them more fully. At the very least, it’ll give you better intellectual arsenal at your next family gathering or if you feel like braving the comments section on a Facebook post.