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Combating Partisan Hatred with… Social Media?
An Unexpected Tool
Over the upcoming holidays, you’ll be sitting on a couch as your in-laws and/or children loudly talk at you. In a desperate play for distraction, you look at your phone, hoping that social media will soothe your deeply repressed emotions. Likely it won’t, but even worse: your quick hit of social media relief is one more sledgehammer strike to the irreversible division plaguing democracies all over the world...or is it?
It’s fashionable to slam social media. Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, a scathing documentary critique of social media, has been watched by roughly 100 million people. Tristan Harris, the star of the Social Dilemma and social media’s most prominent critic, has become a public figure – making appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience, Ellen, and Capitol Hill. Most people agree with Harris – social media causes social ills, and social media is particularly to blame for political polarization. Republicans and Democrats hate each other, and in the court of public opinion, social media companies are found guilty. To make matters worse, the only people who seem to be defending social media companies are its own employees.
Are Social Media Companies to Blame for Polarization?
Social movements rush to blame people (or companies), but research is slow to verify these charges. In this case, while activists are certain that social media creates division, research faces a chicken or the egg dilemma. It can be confusing to tell whether social media creates polarized partisans, or whether partisans who hate one another are simply more likely to use social media in the first place.
Research often reveals seemingly contradictory results. In one recent study, participants who deactivated Facebook for four weeks reduced their hatred of the other side, but a similar experiment showed no difference between participants who binged online news for two weeks and those who took a two-week news vacation. These different findings show that social media, like any other technology, may not always cause division, but it depends on how it is used. We think it’s less important to generally condemn social media companies than to identify how social media might divide us...or unite us.
There is no one social media experience. Social media exposes some people to diverse thoughtful viewpoints leading them to depolarize, while other social media feeds feature a stream of extremist hypocrisy from the other side. Accounts on Twitter like “Conservative Self-Owns,” “Right-Wing Watch,” and “SJW Nonsense” highlight the most incendiary opinions from the other side, elevating them to mainstream status. Alternatively, accounts like @KnowTheFlipSide on Facebook and Twitter repost articles that contain thoughtful perspectives from both the political left and right about hot-button issues.
Unfortunately, compassionate takes on social media seem to gain (on average) less traction than cruel ones. The spectacle of partisan slam dunk contests attracts eyes, and on social media, nuanced discussions are buried deep in comment sections and threads. In the end, it’s hard to tell whether social media seems like a cesspool because hostile partisans dominate the platforms, or whether social media companies are intent on turning everyday Americans into hostile partisans. The good thing is more research is being done to investigate these kinds of questions.
What Can You Do?
With lots of haters and a few reasonable people, how do you have civil discussions in less than 281 characters? There are several steps you can take, but it’s probably not what you’d expect. Unfortunately, our intuitions about how to better use social media often lead us deeper into conflict with the other side.
With so many trolls out there, perhaps you think you need to be a troll hunter and call out others for their counterproductive exaggeration. You could expose their behavior and contrast it with your own thoughtful response: when they go low, make it obvious to them that you’re going high! Unfortunately, publicly disagreeing with inflammatory posts is more like pouring gasoline onto them. Outgroup animosity drives engagement on social media, so even when we think we’re debunking claims, we’re probably just contributing to their spread. Instead, it’s more practical to keep scrolling to disincentivize polarizing behavior. We think this tweet by @LisaDeBruine contains a good rationale for scrolling past sensational content.
This leads us to our first piece of advice for everyone who wants more moral understanding on social media: marginalize the caricature artists.
Marginalizing the Caricature Artists
Caricature artists take people—and often their faces—and distort them for laughs or for outrage. They’re an old profession. In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci is credited with creating some of the first caricatures as early as the 15th century. Nowadays, you’ll see caricature artists making funny tourist portraits on an ocean boardwalk, but caricature drawings have long been used in political critiques, such as when people called out Thomas Jefferson’s affairs with slaves (imaged below).
Caricature artists are also found on social media, using text to exaggerate, mock, and satirize the other side. Of course, exaggeration and name-calling aren’t new: Federalist editor William Cobbett (b. 1763) exaggerated plenty when referring to the Jacobins as: "refuse of nations"; "yelper of the Democratic kennels"; "vile old wretch"; "frog-eating, man-eating, blood-drinking cannibals."
Some people think political caricatures are not a problem - especially if the recipient is worthy of contempt. These arguments use hostile rhetoric from America’s founding as evidence that political caricatures are natural. But while the ability to make fun of governmental authorities is important for democracy, dehumanization and exaggeration are usually unproductive because they make pragmatic compromise difficult.
The best way to weaken the influence of caricature artists on social media is to not engage with them. Unfollow, keep scrolling, etc. But where does that leave us? Letting all the polarized people dominate the public square with exaggeration and sensationalism? This could lead to what researchers call a “spiral of silence.” When you believe you have a minority opinion on a social media platform dominated by hostility, you’re more likely to self-censor about your lack of dislike for the other side (further making the media environment highlight extremes and making everything seem more polarized). If you (a bridge-builder) stop interacting on social media, you’d be removing your reasonable voice from a space that needs reasonableness. So while you disengage from caricature artists, you can—and should—engage with other well-intentioned users to combat the misperception that everyone is polarized.
Rewarding Good Faith Disagreement
Finding people who respectfully engage with one another on social media can be a tall order. Fortunately, Chris Bail, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, has developed a suite of tools that may help Twitter users encounter this kind of content more frequently. His team at the Polarization Lab created a “bipartisanship leaderboard,” where high-profile people whose tweets appeal to members of both parties are featured. Also, they have “depolarizing bots” that retweet messages that resonate with members of the opposing party, and the lab screens out messages that score highly on toxicity and incivility. It’s a good idea to follow these accounts and engage with/promote their content to promote norms of civil disagreement.
Ditching the Persuasion Mindset & Adopting Dialogue Skills
Even when we’re trying to have good faith disagreement, we too often have the wrong goals in mind—trying to convince others we’re right. There is ample research showing that trying to persuade others makes us, a) less likely to persuade others and b) less likely to reduce others’ prejudices. In our minds, we think “if only people knew the right facts!” But as we’ve mentioned in our prior piece on talking about Covid-19, facts are the language of persuasion and intellectual battles. Alternatively, sharing our own and inquiring about others’ experiences can increase tolerance and even reduce dehumanization.
Once we ditch the persuasion mindset, it becomes much easier to signal our willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views – a construct Julia Minson refers to as “conversational receptiveness.” In Minson’s work, people who employed conversational receptiveness were rated as “more desirable partners for future collaboration, and their messages were seen as more persuasive.” The authors even created a handy “receptiveness recipe” from a language processing algorithm. This recipe contains four components 1. positive statements, rather than negations 2. explicit acknowledgment of understanding; 3. finding points of agreement; and 4. hedging to soften claims. Signaling conversational receptiveness in comment threads and original posts could help foster moral understanding across disagreements.
Individual and Systemic Change
Using these tips, you can help change the social media environment, but it’s good to be mindful of the limits of our personal influence. In his new book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, Jesse Singal urges us to pump the brakes on naïve optimism. He critiques the idea of quick psychological fixes to wicked social problems and instead argues that psychologists should recognize that their solutions are just part of the equation, with more important change often needed at the systemic level. So, while we spent much of this article discussing how we can use our own social media accounts as a tool to bridge divides, we think this guide should be paired with institutional change, especially social media reform. After all, thousands of people changing their online behavior will be for nothing if Facebook and Twitter algorithms only promote divisive posts. There are links at the bottom of this article if you’re interested in learning more about these macro-scale initiatives.
Conclusion: Your Social Media To-Do List
The rise of social media has transformed our lives, but partisan vitriol and caricature artists are nothing new. Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact impact of social media on polarization, but it’s nice to know that there are steps you can take to use your account for good:
1. Marginalize the Caricature Artists
2. Reward Good Faith Disagreement
3. Ditch the Persuasion Mindset & Adopt Dialogue Skills
Following these principles means that the fallout from your secretive holiday-social-media-breaks extends only to annoying your family for not fully participating in board games, and not undermining American democracy.
Links to Social media Reform