Amid the COVID-19 crisis, another virus might be worse: polarization on social media. As social media continues to tear us apart, we are finding it even more difficult to communicate and cooperate. Even in the face of disaster.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t discuss or criticize ideas, or speak out against injustice. Or refrain from posting or commenting about controversial topics such as politics and religion. The reality, however, is that many people on social media have become intolerant of people with opposing views.
Don’t cry for us, social media
True, polarization on social media is partly due to deliberate attempts to sow discord and spread disinformation. The use of paid trolls is an example of the manipulation of social media. But we can’t blame trolls for all our problems—for our failure to communicate.
It’s fashionable these days to put all the blame on social media for the polarization of politics.
While social media does play a role in polarization, it does not necessarily make people more polarized.
“That’s all to say that the people who read politics [on] Twitter or watch cable news tend to do so because they already know what they believe, and they’re following politics to track whether their candidates, party, or ideas are winning or losing. They’re not easily persuadable.”
Many of us think we can debate with people online and change their minds. Perhaps by showing them how fallacious their arguments are. Or telling them how irrational their beliefs are. We think we can somehow convince them to, say, no longer support their favorite politician.
Tribal conflicts and online communities
Instead of convincing our opponents to change our minds, what we are actually doing on social media is strengthening our connection with like-minded people. In other words, we reaffirm our membership in our tribe. Our digital communities rely on tribal conflicts. Us vs Them.
This why we often say that we are now living in online filter bubbles or echo chambers. We choose to belong to online communities of people who think like us. We curate news and social media posts, tailoring them to our preferences and politics.
Because of this, it would seem that polarization on social media should decrease if we expose ourselves to opposing views. This, however, is not the case. Listening to the other side can actually increase polarization.
“Christopher Bail and colleagues from Duke University recruited hundreds of Democrats and Republicans who were active on Twitter, and paid them to follow a Twitter bot that would retweet content from the opposing side. After a month of exposure, the Democrats retained about the same attitudes—but the Republicans ended up more conservative than when they started the study! This result suggests that polarization in the U.S. could be driven by exposure to views people disagree with, rather than being separated from them by filter bubbles.
“There are several ways of interpreting this result. For example, it could be that participants were reacting directly to the content of the messages they were exposed to on Twitter, but it could also be the case that they were simply responding to the messengers, not the message. In other words, the issues are not as important as group affiliation.”
Polarization as performance art
If tribalism plays a key role in building online communities, then it’s easier to understand why social media debates do not persuade the other side. They are actually for the benefit of the tribal members. To reaffirm that their cause is the right one, and that they are superior (intellectually, morally, etc. ) to the other tribe.
We accomplish this by showing how wrong, inferior, or evil the other tribe is. In the social media age, this can include legitimate means such as humor in the form of satire and memes. Or through black propaganda, such as fake news and online demolition jobs.
Unfortunately, both sides believe they are right. Both accuse each other of spreading fake news and using paid trolls. And if you happen to be a centrist trying to see both sides, you might end up being attacked by both.
Polarization on social media is dangerous, particularly as the world deals with a pandemic. Prioritizing politics and partisanship over people is literally a life-and-death matter in the face of the end of the world as we know it.
The facts of online life
We can’t convince people by telling them they’re wrong. And we certainly won’t be able to do it by mocking them. Unfortunately, we also can’t change their minds with facts.
What can we do, then?
“Atomic Habits” author James Clear explained in the article I cited above why facts are not enough. He shared a lot of good insights and advice, including this one:
“Your time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones. Don’t waste time explaining why bad ideas are bad. You are simply fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity.
“The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is that it is forgotten. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen’s quote, ‘Spend as little time as possible talking about how other people are wrong.’
“Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.”
In the end, there is no easy solution to polarization on social media. But maybe by understanding why we act the way we do online, we can start finding some answers.