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Don’t Blame Social Media. Blame the Politicization of Nearly Everything

The increased division between people based on political affiliation has been recognized by many and has frequently been attributed to technological developments. Outlets like Facebook and Twitter are blamed for increased hostility, disinformation, and hateful attitudes spreading across the political discourse. But maybe politics has itself to blame.

The influence of social media is usually attributed to the platforms’ fundamental structure. Government officials and those loyal to their message emphasize this a lot. Their explanation for polarization is that serious disagreement with their policies stems from “disinformation,” which is amplified by algorithms that match users with information that they will be more likely to engage with.

Supposed disinformation receives exponential aggrandizement because of platforms’ promotion of popular content, which gives this kind of information better chances to become even more popular. Further, false statements tend to become popular because they evoke stronger emotions compared to the truth. Content creators are incentivized to postulate incorrect statements to market themselves, because the truth about the targets of such statements, such as government officials, wouldn’t evoke such anger and dislike as can be observed today. Thus, supposedly, the political process is damaged, since the most popular ideas are false.

Narrowly ascribing the drive toward increased disagreement, dislike, and other aspects of polarization to social media platforms is difficult. The empirical data that are sometimes claimed to support the notion that social media drives political polarization more accurately show that politics evoke polarization on social media. One study by Antoine Banks, Ernesto Calvo, David Karol, and Shibley Telhami presumably shows that browsing on Twitter can increase polarization. Their experiment shows that exposure to “negative tweets” about a candidate that you don’t like can increase your immediate perception of the contrast between yourself and that candidate.

Another study, by Jaeho Cho, Saifuddin Ahmed, Martin Hilbert, Billy Liu, and Jonathan Luu, showed that algorithmically recommended content on YouTube can influence the feelings one has toward a political candidate. Both of these highly esteemed, peer-reviewed studies are held up as prime examples of social media driving polarization, but they fail to show anything but that an increase in political content can increase indicators of polarization like perceived difference and personal emotions.

The empirical literature also contributes with data that is directly inconsistent with the social media polarization case. Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro reveal that polarization has increased the most in the sixty-five and over age group—the group least likely to use social media but not unlikely to receive a lot of political content through other media sources, such as cable news! Further, the large increase in polarization in the developed world noted within social science is specific to the US. Other countries have experienced only a small increase, or even a decrease, in polarization, whereas social media use as a variable seems similar, or “constant,” among the examined nations.

Further, Isaac Waller and Ashton Anderson conducted an enormous investigation into Reddit, looking at individuals and communities and how the content and “level of polarization” changed over time. Among individuals and communities, change was rare and prior use did not explain later polarization. On the other hand, political events such as the 2016 US presidential election seem to explain waves of new users that have influenced the discussions on Reddit forums. Hence, Reddit became a more political place due to real political events and did not itself drive users to attend more to politics.

Looking beyond empirical science, it’s easy to find examples of social media use that seem counterindicative of a general polarization effect. Through social media, we have seen the emergence of collaborative connections in an unprecedented manner. Online communities share tips and tricks for everything from potted flowers to garage mechanics. They have helped local and international trade surge.

Video game communities are connecting kids and adults around the world, enhancing language skills and advanced collaboration. People are trusting strangers to advise them about hotels, restaurants, and taxis. Programmers help each other and customers in an extremely decentralized and global infrastructure of collaboration. Anecdotally, social media have also fostered unity in cohorts otherwise unlikely to see eye to eye.

Fan groups in European soccer are notorious for fuss and fights. Explicit hate due to historical rivalry, local loyalty, and even political affiliations is widespread. But when a group of very influential European soccer clubs made an effort to Americanize European soccer and create an National Hockey League–style covenant (the “European Soccer League”) across the continent without risk of relegation, fans from all across Europe came together despite all differences and commonplace mutual hate. The engagement online was enormous, and the publicity became extremely negative for the clubs, since social media helped to canalize the different fractions’ agreement. Fans from rival clubs also arranged physical protests outside stadiums and headquarters. A few clubs soon left the project, which was shortly thereafter canceled altogether.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of public collaboration in a conventional political setting. One would imagine such a blameworthy intervention as the lockdowns being the fuel needed, but lockdowns have instead distinguished themselves by accelerating polarization. Instead of blaming the structure of social media, it might be time to consider the structure of politics. The monopoly of violence and the administrative state’s lust to utilize it for a growing body of projects turns everything into everybody’s business. Any opinion that you hold may be related to my freedom or welfare.

And it doesn’t stop at specific issues. If I reckon that one party disregards my welfare or values at one time, that affects my general assessment of that party. If it happens a thousand times, the mere indication of support for that party will be annoying. Political discourse becomes an intricate web of cues about where others are positioning themselves and how the power struggle is going.

Psychologically, it’s no wonder that polarization increases as the political domain increases in scope, a trend that may be apparent specifically in the US. Social media is just another channel for politically relevant information, which makes people angry wherever it shows up. Social media can increase the velocity of information sharing, but if that causes polarization itself, we would expect it to be omnipresent in social media, which is not true.

Polarization rather seems contingent on political information. If government officials and those loyal to them are concerned about polarization, they should contemplate how their own work is driving unrest on social media and elsewhere.