From the Center
Life was so much easier when everything was Facebook’s fault.
As our political system has become increasingly hyper-partisan and our culture has become much less tolerant of opposing viewpoints, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and its fellow social media platforms have been a convenient scapegoat for us to blame for our polarization and intolerance. We’ve learned that the algorithms employed by Google, Twitter, Instagram and the rest provide their members with a steady and never-ending stream of content that reflects their existing beliefs. As a result, a social media user who loves puppies gets constant postings, photos and videos of adorable small dogs. Cat aficionados are sent content about their favorite pets. And in the political realm, Democrats and Republicans alike receive continuous reminders from like-minded partisans that their party, their candidates and their causes are the right ones.
The social media platforms drive us toward our preferred topics and viewpoints not out of malice but rather for bottom-line business reasons. The longer you stay on their website, the more money they make. And wallowing in material that reinforces our existing priorities and reassures us that our opinions are correct is a much more pleasurable experience than being confronted with ideas with which we might disagree or find uncomfortable. So we come to a tacit agreement with the companies: they will comfort us with content that congratulates us for our brilliance. In return, we will reward them by spending an immense amount of time on their sites.
This tradeoff makes it easy to forget that our own human nature is a key contributor to this dynamic too. Last week, we were reminded that the greater share of the responsibility lies in our own laps.
A series of seminal studies on social media behavior were released by an academic consortium led by the University of Texas and New York University that showed that changing these algorithms to eliminate such reinforcement methods did not have a significant impact on the political beliefs and attitudes of the participants. The researchers replaced Meta’s current methodology with one that was content-neutral and instead prioritized the most recent material rather than the most ideologically pleasing. If our assumptions about social media were correct, the change should have made the respondents less rigid in their thinking and more receptive to a wider range of perspectives.
But even when the participants received less targeted information, they remained just as polarized in their thinking as when they had been previously. This suggests that Meta and (theoretically) their competitors are actually not responsible for the discord that dominates our political landscape.
Rather, the most noticeable impact of the change is that the users paid less attention to political news of any kind. De-emphasizing partisan information didn’t make them less ideologically driven. It made them less interested in politics, period. We can conclude from these results that our natural tendency is not toward better and more balanced political information but toward less information altogether. That’s not Meta's or Google’s fault— that’s ours.
The social media companies are not completely off the hook. These studies were done over an abbreviated period late in the 2002 election cycle, so it is not possible to conclude whether the algorithms had already had their impact by the time the research began. Given the short duration and timing of the research, it may be more accurate to say that social media does not create our tendencies toward polarization but likely reinforces those inclinations.
One of the things we like best about politics is being part of a group with whom we can agree on matters that are important to us. These tribal instincts can strengthen our commitment to a local sports team or a favorite actor or singer. Simply put, we want to belong.
Social media’s impact is a direct result of its ability to give us that sense of inclusion and belonging, whether it’s as a fan of Taylor Swift or Harrison Ford, of LeBron James or the U.S. women’s soccer team, or of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Donald Trump. It may accommodate and facilitate our yearning to be part of a group— even an extremely liberal or conservative one. But the original drive comes from within. Blaming technology that enables us to indulge ourselves in such a fashion is ignoring our own culpability for a divided and broken political system.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).