Does social media leave us more politically divided?

Social media can be an incredible force for positive change. But when it comes to politics, does it leave us more polarised?

A study by the University of Missouri has found that in the run-up to an election or political event, people use social media to reinforce their own political beliefs and views, rather than being exposed to different views. Michael Kearney is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. He researched who Twitter users choose to follow during a general election. He found that people increase the number of people they follow who agree with their political viewpoint, rather than seeking out objective opinion.

What’s interesting about the study is that it shows that the problem isn’t that social media is dividing us more. It’s that it amplifies extreme views and silences the moderates. Kearney said: “We are not necessarily getting farther and farther apart – it’s just the people in the middle are becoming more quiet and withdrawn.”

Is the answer to seek out other people’s advice to avoid a ‘filter bubble’ or confirmation bias?

Not necessarily, according to a study by Duke University, which found that seeking out political opinion that opposes your own can actually entrench your view even further.

If you just listened to what’s happening on social media, you would believe that everyone holds an extreme view of any given topic, mainly those which are naturally divisive, such as political debates (Brexit is a good example). There’s a reason for that, too. Another study by New York University found that we are more likely to share political posts that include emotive language, particularly what the study calls ‘moral emotional’ language – the kind that politicians routinely use on social media. And then, of course, there’s the algorithmic effect where you share something that’s emotive, and the social network will show you more, similar posts. So the whole thing is amplified again.

Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co, said this week that social media has a role in “validating our convictions and amplifying our deepest fears.” In a speech at the Simon Weisenthal Center, Iger said: “Hate and anger are dragging us toward the abyss… hate takes many forms,  sometimes disguising itself as more socially acceptable expression like fear or resentment or contempt.” In a world where politicians are regularly sent death threats and abuse (over all channels) for their views, whatever side of the political fence they sit, perhaps now is the time for all of us to reassess how we express our views on social media.

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