It’s easy to point across the political aisle and find examples of how social media has pushed your opponents into hyper-partisan corners, living in what seems to be an alternative reality.
But it’s likely your reality is skewed by those same social media algorithms every day – subtly nudging you closer and closer toward political extremism – without you even realizing it.
“One of the main effects of social media is polarizing the people whose opinions are not as likely to be strong and extreme themselves,” said Dr. Jaime Settle, director of the Social Networks & Political Psychology Research Lab at William & Mary. “It forces people in the middle to pick a side… where you see people who are like you. And that really does push people to affiliate with one of the two (political) camps.”
Researchers have found social media plays a significant role in dividing Americans, sorting them into homogenous groups: by religion, by race, by geography, and even by whether they own a MyPillow.
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That sorting reduces our abilities to understand how other Americans see the world, but it helps social media companies turn bigger profits by boosting enraging material.
“We're drawn to content that’s more inflammatory,” Settle said. “People are most likely to engage with content when it's emotionally provocative.”
So social media companies are incentivized to push you – subtly – away from moderate opinions.
“I don't think they're evil,” former Google consultant Joe Toscano said of big tech companies. “I just think that that's the business model. Unfortunately, it's problematic and it needs to be fixed.”
Your News is Radicalizing You
We all think we’re able to outsmart a computer algorithm, but social media companies are worth billions because, simply put, we are not able to outsmart computer algorithms.
Tech companies are incentivized to keep you on their sites longer, so they overserve you the kind of stories you are most likely to interact with: the headlines they think you’ll love and the headlines they think you’ll hate.
And even though Facebook says only 6% of the content on an average user’s feed is related to politics, Settle writes in her book, Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, that it doesn’t take much to alter a user’s perception of reality.
Right now, it’s unlikely Democrats are seeing many fact-checks and watchdog stories critical of President Biden in their social media feeds, and it’s unlikely Republicans are seeing many fact-checks and news of investigations into former President Trump’s actions.
Without news stories challenging our existing beliefs, Settle says we are likely to only become more hardened in our partisan beliefs. And without moderate opinions to keep us in check, we become more vulnerable to misinformation.
The abundance of partisan posts that get clicks and comments also drowns out a lot less exciting news that actually may be more important to your life.
Your Conversations are Radicalizing You
Toscano, who was featured in the Netflix documentary, "The Social Dilemma," said social media’s sorting creates alternative realities that undermine truth.
“You don't see what your neighbor's screen looks like – or even what your brother's and sister's screen looks like,” Toscano said. “And it's easy to think that our view is the right view. But the reality of it is, everyone's (view) is individually slightly skewed – some farther than others.
“Both [Democrats and Republicans] think the other side is getting gamed, when it's actually both at the same time.”
Recent stories have illustrated how social media echo chambers creates radically-different news feeds and how interacting only with users who share your race, religion and views can convince you more Americans share those views that what might actually hold true.
Similarly, interacting only with extreme views from those who disagree with you can lead to stereotyping and inaccurate assumptions.
“On social media, we only see the most extreme examples of those people who are not in our group,” Settle said. “But it's very natural for us to think that those are the people who are most representative of the other side. And so we tend to think that the other side is more similar in their viewpoints and that they're more extreme in the opinions they hold.”
Your Conversations are Radicalizing Others
When you engage with enraging content, there is often someone on the other side of the conversation who shares the same frustrations as you. And just as these exchanges nudge you deeper into your partisan corner, it very well may be doing the same to the person you disagree with.
So social media companies are monetizing our anger – and encouraging us to argue even more. But research suggests tech companies aren’t just creating more disagreement between Americans; they’re also creating more hate.
NBCLX documented last fall how Americans are increasingly treating politics like they treat their extreme sports fandoms: with rage and animosity for their opponents.
A 2020 Pew report also revealed 41% of Americans – the highest rate ever – said they didn’t know a single person who supported a different candidate for president as them. And a September YouGov poll revealed 38% of those that identified as Democrats or Republicans said they’d be upset if their child married someone from the opposite party.
“Before social media was invented, people who had abhorrent or deranged viewpoints, those perspectives made it hard for them to attain an audience because they were false,” said former conservative activist Matthew Sheffield, who now runs a non-profit news site dedicated to more diverse voices. “But now (social media has) essentially enabled people who have horrible, horrific, delusional and insane beliefs to come together and to have a massive audience.
“I've pretty much come to the viewpoint that social networks should be nonprofit because the incentives for for-profit businesses to run a social media empire are negative…(executives) have to keep people (on their sites) as often as possible and as many times a day as possible. And that's not healthy for our society.”
How to Push Back and Stop It
Settle and Toscano say the best way to stop social media feeds from pushing you into a partisan corner is to actively diversify your news diet, and not just rely on your feed for content.
“Make a point to seek out those people that you know and that you like/respect, but who have views on the other side,” Settle said. “Track them down on social media, see the kinds of things that they're paying attention to – the kinds of sources that they're reading. Only then, when you actually make a very concerted effort to work around an algorithm and see the full spectrum of information that's out there, are you going to get a sense for where your opinion actually falls.”
Toscano added that finding moderate – or contrary – opinions in real life will produce much richer interactions.
“The reality is most people don't change based on an internet interaction. If you want to make change, I think you need to talk to the people in your community face-to-face. You need to have conversations with people (and) discuss things that are very sensitive.
“Be open to the fact that your view might not be true – or might not be the whole truth.”
Finally, experts recommend fighting the urge to like, comment on, or share news from your feed, because you wind up helping the algorithms target you better.
Toscano said it’s important to remember that social media companies aren’t looking to provide you the best customer experience because individuals aren’t ultimately their customers – advertisers are. Users are their product, he said, and the more you interact with items in your feed, the more of their product you are providing them for free.