Does social media have a polarization problem?
We seem to be caught in a centrifuge of mind-spinning commentary
Wael Ghonim was a young computer engineer working for Google in Egypt when became a central figure in the events leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011.
In early 2011, Wael created a Facebook page titled, "A Revolution against Corruption, Injustice and Dictatorship," and the number of followers quickly mushroomed.
On Jan.14, he posed a question to the 300,000 followers of the page: "The 25th of January is Police Day. It's a national holiday. If 100,000 of us take to the streets of Cairo, no one is going to stop us. I wonder if we could do it."
In just a few days, the invitation reached over a million people, and over 100,000 people confirmed attendance, on January 25th, his fellow Egyptians flooded the streets of Cairo, calling for change, breaking down the barrier of fear and announcing a new era.
But then came the consequences.
After a few hours, state police shut down the Internet and all telecommunication lines. They also kidnapped Wael and held him in total isolation for the next 11 days. Three days after Wael was released, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
For Wael, this was the most inspiring and empowering moment of his life. It was a time of great hope. Virtually everyone in Egypt lived in a state of euphoria for the 18 days following the Mubarak resignation.
However, their post-revolution euphoria quickly faded as they failed to build consensus about what to do next. The political struggle that followed led to intense polarization and social media only amplified the problem, by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors and hate speech.
As Wael recounted that period of time, “The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, and hate speech. I started to worry about the safety of my family.”
Political divisiveness reached its peak as the two main factions — army supporters and Islamists – took to the streets in the middle of 2013. Activists like Wael suddenly found themselves caught in the middle feeling helpless. “Both groups wanted you to side with them; you were either with them or against them.”
On July 3, 2013, after three days of protest demanding his resignation, the army stepped in and ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president.
With social media the power to tear down far exceeds the power to build up!
A recent Pew Study concluded that 39 percent of consistent conservatives and 30 percent of consistent liberals tend to drive the vast majority of political discussions. These are the people that talk about politics often, and others turn to them as an authoritative voice of information.
Not surprisingly, as our online awareness increases, so does our ideologically consistency. Some of the study’s findings included:
For consistent conservatives…
- They expressed greater distrust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, 88 percent of them trusted Fox News.
- As Facebook users, they were more likely to narrow their circle of friends to read political opinions that were in line with their own views.
- A full 66 percent say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.
By contrast, consistently liberals:
- They expressed more trust than distrust for 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey. For liberals, NPR, PBS and the BBC were the most trusted news sources.
- They were more likely to block or “defriend” someone on a social network, or end a personal friendship, because of politics.
- On their Facebook feeds, liberals were more likely to follow issue-based groups, rather than political parties or candidates.
With minute-by-minute online increased coverage, intimate social circles, and global awareness, arguments become more refined, groups become more consistent in their messaging, and people have an easier time choosing sides.
Social Network Limitations
Robin Dunbar, the Oxford professor of evolutionary psychology that had previously concluded that humans could only maintain 150 close friends in their life, has just completed a new study, and that number appears to be dropping.
While the average Facebook user he studied had around 150 friends, he found that they only had 14 friends they considered to be “close” friends and only 4 they would turn to in a time of crisis.
He concluded that most online friendships are only superficial. While extended networks are indeed valuable for things like finding a job, recommending an auto mechanic, discovering a good restaurant, or fun things to do in Aruba, these are not the people you’re going to call and say, “Hey my mom is dying.”
Dunbar further determined that social media doesn’t actually help us expand our circle of friends, but it may help some relationships from dying off entirely.
While extensive “friend networks” may give the impression of massive influence, the true nature of this kind of influence tends to be shallow and reinforcing rather than mind-shifting and game-changing.
Five Critical Issues Behind Social Media’s Polarization Problem
Over the past couple years, Wael has spent considerable time trying to ferret out the root cause behind social media’s polarization problem. Here are the five critical challenges that he feels need to be addressed.
- Rumors. On social media we don't know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people's biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.
- Echo Chambers. On social media, we create our own echo chambers. We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and tend to mute, un-follow, and block everybody else.
- Angry Mobs. Online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. It's as if we forget that the people behind the screens are actually real people and not just avatars.
- Hard to Change Opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet, and we are less motivated to change these views, even when new evidence arises.
- Broadcasting Over Engagement. Our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. It's as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.
For social media companies, the polarization problem is more than a little obvious. The solution less so.
Broadcasting a message is easy. Cultivating a thoughtful stand takes time, as every engagement requires human effort, personal attention, and emotional commitment, all of which are in short supply.
Was the message ever intended to supersede the messenger?
As humans, we tend to be buoyed by sensational headlines, controversy and matters of life and death. Good headlines come from the extreme edges and anything that can generate fear has a way of captivating our attention. For many of these reasons, we seem to be caught in a centrifuge of mind-spinning commentary as we feel the emotional center for most schools of thought drifting towards the edges.
Is there a way to create an autonomous checks-and-balance system to offset the natural schisms formed by public commentary? Is it possible to mute the whisper campaigns, rumormongers and echo chambers being triggered by the ideologically correct?
More importantly, do social media companies recognize this as a problem, and are they working on a solution?