What does research say about social media effects on polarization?, with Emily Kubin

A talk with researcher Emily Kubin (twitter: @emily_kubin) about her work reviewing more than 100 studies on how social media may be affecting political polarization. Transcript is below.

Their paper is called “The role of (social) media in political polarization: a systematic review.” We discuss her research, why polarization is a problem in the first place, why people can be resistant to thinking that polarization is a problem, the two different types of polarization (affective and ideological), our psychology tendency to become us-versus-them in our thinking, her own opinions on what social media is doing to us, and the mechanisms by which social media may be amplifying polarization.

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Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding the people around us and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at 

On today’s episode, recorded October 12th 2021, I talk to Emily Kubin about her research into the effects of social media on political polarization. 

When some people hear about the problem of polarization, think something like: “one political group is way worse than the other so it makes sense that we’re polarized and therefore polarization is not a problem”. If you’re someone who thinks something like that, I recommend you listen to this episode. Because, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many people who study these things, our us-versus-them polarization is the root cause of the problems we’re facing in the United States and in many other divided and dysfunctional countries, and many people in both political groups, including people like you and me, play a role in amplifying those divides. Many people have a defensive reaction to thinking about polarization and their potential role in it, which goes something like “the other side is much worse so why should I have to think about my behavior or my group’s behavior” But it’s possible to recognize how we can be contributing to our problems while still believing one group is worse than the other. In other words, we can attempt to change our behavior and the people on our side’s behavior to help solve our problems and that doesn’t require us to take the blame for the problem; it just requires us to recognize how these dynamics are happening. 

I really can’t overstate how important I think the issues we’ll be discussing are. I don’t view these issues as distant, abstract academic topics; they are vitally important topics, in my opinion quite literally the most important topics, because extreme polarization can be deadly and destructive on its own, can and has destroyed many countries, but also because us being very polarized prevents us from solving other very serious and scary problems. 

Emily Kubin and Christian Von Sikorski’s paper is titled “The Role of (Social) Media in Political Polarization: A Systematic Review.”For that research they examined 121 studies on the role of social media in shaping political polarization. 

 I’ll read the abstract of that paper:

“Rising political polarization is, in part, attributed to the fragmentation of news media and the spread of misinformation on social media. Previous reviews have yet to assess the full breadth of research on media and polarization. We systematically examine 94 articles (121 studies) that assess the role of (social) media in shaping political polarization. Using quantitative and qualitative approaches, we find an increase in research over the past 10 years and consistently find that pro-attitudinal media exacerbates polarization. We find a hyperfocus on analyses of Twitter and American samples and a lack of research exploring ways (social) media can depolarize. Additionally, we find ideological and affective polarization are not clearly defined, nor consistently measured. Recommendations for future research are provided.” end quote

You can follow Emily on Twitter at @emily_kubin, and you can find her research by searching online for ‘emily kubin research’. 

I’ve spent a good amount of time on this podcast interviewing people about political polarization psychology and about how social media may be impacting that. If this topic interests you, I recommend skimming back through past episodes to see topics related to this.

I’ve also done my own work on this topic. Last year I researched and wrote a piece about the inherent ways in which social media may be amplifying our divides. My focus on inherent aspects was a purposeful contrast to a focus on product features, which gets most of the attention; a good example of the focus on product features was in the documentary The Social Dilemma. I think the focus on product features is attractive in many ways, because it gives us clear villains, and it’s also fairly optimistic in that it assumes the problem is simply badly made products and not something more intrinsic and harder to combat. But I think this focus is a mistake and a blind spot and I think it detracts us from understanding the root causes of the problem. That piece I wrote contains some ideas that, as far as I know, I’m the first person to write about. For example, I reference a 1950s study that showed how writing things down publicly makes us more stubborn and less likely to change our minds, and I think this is one of the fundamental ways in which internet communication may be making us less flexible and more defensive and argumentative. You can find that piece of mine on my Medium blog; search for ‘zachary elwood medium social media. 

A few months ago, I talked to a high school class about these topics, and I think we need more schools working these ideas into their curriculum; we need more awareness from a young age of how these tools that now play such a huge role in our lives may be screwing us up in various ways.  

Okay, sorry about all the self-promotion, let’s get back to my guest Emily Kubin:  Emily is currently a PhD student in the Political Psychology & Communication Lab at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Landau, Germany. She is also a research affiliate at the Center for Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Emily’s studies focus on political communication. Specifically, she focuses on how political opponents view and interact with one another, and the role media plays in opponents’ perceptions of one another. She places a special focus on studying strategies that political opponents (and the media) can use to reduce affective polarization. 

Here’s my interview with Emily Kubin:

Zach: Hi, Emily. Thanks for coming on. 

Emily: Thank you for having me. 

Zach: So you’ve clearly reviewed a lot of work about social media effects on political polarisation and you’ve clearly had to think deeply about all the work out there on the subject. And I realise that your research was not about reaching some sort of definitive conclusion all these topics, but I think a lot of people would be very curious if we’re talking about effective polarisation, emotional us-versus-them polarisation. Are you willing to say what your personal take is on how much of an effect social media is having on effective polarisation?

Emily: So of course as a scientist, it’s very difficult to say X causes Y. Right? We tend to talk about correlations rather than causations. I’ve looked through a great depth of literature on this specific subject and what we are consistently seeing is this kind of relationship between the use of social media and the contents of social media, and increasing levels of effective polarisation. Especially in terms of the connection between Facebook as a social media platform and Twitter. These two major social media networks seem to be frequently cited as places where people are becoming increasingly more effectively polarised.

Zach: Are there certain studies that stand out to you as you were reviewing the literature and studies? Are there certain things that stand out as being the most important ones in the field?

Emily: Well, what I would say is the most interesting research out there is focusing on the extent to which we’re actually incentivized to be polarising on social media platforms. So there’s a variety of studies that actually highlight that politicians when they are saying polarising things or being very polarising on social media platforms, they get more reach, more spread, and therefore they might actually be more incentivized to be saying polarising things. If I am a politician and I want people to hear from me, I want them to know my name, I want them to have my name pop up on their newsfeed, then social media is a great place to be spreading my polarising content to get access to the public.

Zach: Yeah, I think that kind of gets into something I’m interested in, and it’s the inherent ways that social media and internet communication act on us; which I think often the product choices get so much attention like what buttons are used and what are the specific algorithms and rules. But I think to me, if the internet was just a series of very simple forums like Reddit or something, I think we’d still be dealing with a lot of the same effects because there is this inherent aspect to the internet and our communication in general of like, we want to be noticed, we want to get attention– negative messages get more attention than positive messages, that kind of thing. And I’m curious did some of the work that you review talk about some of these inherent aspects of internet communication?

Emily: Yeah, exactly. A lot of the content that we see that gets spread the most are things that are the most outrageous, the most upsetting and cause the most strong emotional reactions. And these things tend to also be very polarising things. So when we see an outrageous post, these things are liked more, reacted to more. And it could be in terms of people reacting in a good way of saying, “This is right, I agree with this. This is great,” and also people reacting like, “This is disgusting. This is horrible. How could you share this or think this way?” So on the internet, the things that are are going to cause those strongest emotional reactions are also the things that are going to spread the furthest and fastest. And yeah, those are the things that are the most polarising often.

Zach: A small edit here. I’m going to skip to a part of the interview where Emily talks about some of the methods they used to review the many studies that accumulated.

Emily: And then now let’s say we have our collection and in the case of this review, we had 94 articles in total that we analysed. Now the next step is to say, “Well, how do we collect this massive amount of knowledge and data and find something that we can actually present to the public of what we know in the literature.” And so what we decided to do was start to categorise the study. So for example some studies will focus on media content like what kind of content is on social media platforms or news media, etc? And so they’re just focusing on what is the actual text that people will read. Another area of categorization could be like your selective exposure. So if I’m selectively exposing myself to to like-minded media, how does that impact the extent to which I’m polarised? Then the third is focusing in on media effects. So these are often much more like experiments, and they are manipulating different types of media and seeing if there’s differences in outcomes for polarisation. We can start breaking these down into different types of research, and then once you do that you can then look and see if there’s systematic patterns.

Zach: A small note here due to an audio glitch, Emily says that one thing they’re looking for in the studies is what they measure whether it is polarisation on actual issues and policies, or whether it’s polarisation on how the subjects perceive people who were politically different from them. And those are two very different measurements.

Emily: What’s really interesting is that even researchers that study this stuff don’t seem to be very good at making those distinctions either. Of course the researchers usually or should know the distinction between the two, but when they talk about it in their work, they don’t always make this clear distinction of like, “We’re going to be focusing on effective polarisation,” or “We’re going to be focusing on ideological polarisation.” And the reason that that can be a problem is that it makes it– for people that aren’t as familiar with this topic– it makes this information a lot less clear. Even if you’re as a psychologist that’s studying social psychology but maybe you don’t study politics and policy, you might not know that there’s these two different forms of political polarisation and what they’re called and the antecedents and consequences of these things. And so when you read a paper that’s just talking about political polarisation overall and not making a clear distinction, the nuance gets a little lost. And this is kind of a critique that we’re making a literature on that.

Zach: Yeah, I think a big part of what came across to me in reading your paper was encouraging other scientists to think about these factors and the different categories helps make the research more consistent so you can get a better sense over time. Because as you say, this is a super hard area to study because it’s such a dynamic and changing world and there’s so many factors involved. And I think people don’t understand how complex these things are to study too is another issue. Yeah. 

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. 

Zach: The point about some studies not making the distinction between the effect of an ideological polarisation, I’m curious, sometimes when I read some psychological studies, I’m just thinking this seems really dumb. And I’m wondering were there moments you had when you were reviewing studies and thinking like, “This just seems really bad for a number of reasons and maybe we shouldn’t include it” or do you make that decision ahead of time like, “This is included because it’s peer reviewed or whatever and it’s going to be included no matter what dots you have on it later on,” if that makes sense.

Emily: So we at the very beginning had a very strict criteria of what would be included and what wouldn’t be. We had very clear rules set out that it had to focus specifically on social media or traditional media and the effect of that media on polarisation, or the relationship between these two things. And that’s a very specific criteria to have and so for us, it wasn’t difficult later on to then be like, “Should this actually be included or not because for us, the rules have been very clear from the beginning.” And so what that allowed us to do is then see places where maybe researchers kind of went a little wrong with their research, I would argue, or maybe didn’t do things in the most ideal way. But it didn’t make us question should this be included or not. Of course it should be included, it was very relevant. But what they did wasn’t ideal. I think the place where we saw this the most was in terms of measurement of polarisation specifically. This was really a place where I was kind of shocked. And we originally actually hadn’t been planning on looking at measurement and then decided maybe this would be interesting to see if there’s differences in how researchers are measuring polarisation. And what we found was that relatively consistently, people or researchers I should say are measuring ideological polarisation, which again is this polarisation on policy stances so like the extent to which I’m pro or anti-gun, for example. They measure that… It’s comparative across studies. Most studies are doing something relatively similar to other studies, the only distinction is that some will measure on a specific policy stance. So for example, like to what extent are you pro or anti-gun or based on where participants place themselves on the ideological spectrum and how liberal or conservative you are. 

So those are slightly different things, I would argue. However, these are fair and reasonable ways to measure ideological polarisation. What was really interesting was how effective polarisation was being measured. Of course there’s plenty of people that consistently were measuring it in similar ways in terms of like how warm people feel towards their political opponents was a very standard measure. However, there were some that were a little strange. For example, one paper measured effective polarisation by assessing how strong you feel the leader is of the opposing political party. I would argue that that is not measuring how much animosity I have towards the out group or how much love I have for my in group. I was pretty shocked by this, but I think that highlighting this and finding this distinction is something that’s interesting and important to note that of course it’s a match or a criteria, but it was a surprising finding and it suggests that maybe in the future researchers should be more cognizant of this, and especially with effective polarisation be more consistent in their measurement.

Zach: Yeah, there just seems to be so many factors here. If anyone has looked into it even a little bit, for example trying to measure ideological polarisation by rating, you know, how liberal or conservative you perceive yourself as, that very easily overlaps with feelings and affective polarisation in terms of like, one might perceive oneself as conservative or even have more conservative views because of the feelings. You know, there can be an overlap between these two things and very much in the way that feelings can affect the issues and ramp up the issues. The reason that we can be so irate about the issues can be in an underlying way about the feelings. Because in a less polarised environment, for example, something that could just be a normal political discussion or disagreement suddenly turns and feels like a life and death high stakes thing on the issues. There’s very much this overlap which I think gets at the reason why these things can be hard to separate in people’s minds and also hard to separate for studies.

Emily: Absolutely. Also, something that I would like to note that I think is very interesting is that there’s some new research coming out not necessarily related to my review that suggests that people actually aren’t that ideologically polarised in the US, they don’t disagree that much on policy preferences, but they think that they do. And they have this meta perception that they do, and that this meta perception is related to how much they dislike the outgroup or dislike their political opponents. So it’s like we might even actually have a forecasting error in terms of predicting how different we are from our opponents, and this forecasting error is actually related to how much we’re disliking political opponents. I find that quite interesting and it suggests that there is a distinction between ideological and effective polarisation. And of course they can be related, but now there’s starting to be some evidence that perhaps how effectively polarised you are doesn’t necessarily predict how ideologically polarised you are.

Zach: Yeah, I think the problem I’ve encountered in trying to talk about these things is there’s the feeling that just by saying that there’s a way that both sides are ramping up emotions, for some people it seems to be saying, “Oh, you’re making a both sides argument.” And clearly one side is worse but I think the key to me is acknowledging you can keep thinking one side is worse while also seeing how the emotion makes things worse, like has an amplifying effect on everything. And I think that’s a distinction that can be hard to make because some people hear, “Oh, you’re talking about polarisation. You’re trying to blame both sides.” Yeah, that’s what keeps coming up to me when I have these conversations.

Emily: Yeah, that’s a very interesting insight that is something I hadn’t really thought about that much. But I think that often people are very tied to their convictions about politics and so as soon as they feel in any way blamed or attacked– which both sides probably are feeling when we talk about polarisation– it becomes a very visceral reaction where they feel like it’s unacceptable to be questioning the status quo in terms of levels of polarisation in the society.

Zach: Right. And I think that gets at the hardship, I mean, that’s a project I’m working on now as actually trying to put these things in ways that talk about the problem and get around that instinctual pushback that people have. Because on both sides, clearly if you’re emotional, you have those feelings of, “Why would I ever need to examine my behaviour or my sides behaviour when the other side is clearly much worse?” Right. And so-

Emily: Also, I’m sorry to interrupt but not just that they’re worse, but also ‘I’m right. So of course I have a right to be this angry and this upset and this emotional and not even listen to the other side because I know I’m right. So there’s no point.” [laughs]

Zach: Right. And yeah, some of the illusory aspects of polarisation and the way that we tend to think of the other side as bad for all of these different consistent across-the-board stances, when actually the other side is much more varied in their opinions that we think and we have people that believe some of those things on “our side” you know? Things like that. There’s these illusory natures of nature of polarisation that can exist.

Emily: Yeah, we tend to view the outgroup as very homogenous and like-minded and they all have these very similar and extreme attitudes. And in the reality, that’s not the case. Many more people are actually more moderate but people don’t recognise this or don’t see this. And I think that that can drive affective polarisation further.

Zach: Right, that gets back to the ideological where we have more in common. Multiple studies and surveys have shown that we have much more in common ideologically than we believe. Also, another factor that I think is a big thing here is a lot of people don’t distinguish between the leaders and the citizens in the sense that I can believe… They kind of lump them all on the same homogenous group, like you were saying, the homogeneity. But in reality, we should be able to say, “I can believe this leader is doing bad things and speaking in bad ways and acting divisively and acting ignorantly. And I can also believe that citizens can be fooled or misled in various ways or disagree on various things without them being as bad as that leader.” I think that’s a big distinction, too, that the lack of perceiving that is a key factor in driving polarisation. And perceiving the other side as a monolithic, homogeneous group.

Emily: Yeah. There’s also a lot of evidence of political elites being much more ideologically polarised than average citizens. And so when people are lumping the political elites like politicians, for example, into the same exact category as average citizens, of course people are going to think that the other side is very extreme and polarising. And potentially when they think this then they also could arguably believe that they’re bad for the country, bad for the future of the US. And this is where you see all this intense political strife because there is argument and fighting over the future of America.

Zach: Can you talk a little bit about how you see the distinction between social media effects and, you know, clearly we have polarisation dynamics that can occur just based on our human nature that clearly have been taking place in our country, for example, for decades. I’m curious how you see social media playing into all these other factors like our inherent tendency to do this or TV news, media, things like that.

Emily: Polarization has been increasing even before the rise of social media. So we have become increasingly polarised, but I would argue that social media has exacerbated this effect. So of course we shouldn’t be saying that everything that’s wrong with the US and politics is caused by Facebook. However, I don’t think that they’ve helped and I think that they’ve exacerbated the problem. My understanding of the role of media in polarisation has become one of which it’s very cyclical. So it could be, for example, that the Americans are becoming politically polarised for some unknown reason but this trend is starting to happen. And then they choose to access media markets and social media platforms that follow their own worldviews. This is something in psychology that would make sense. Like, psychologically we want to find information that agrees with our world views. So we do this, and then therefore the media markets are trying to cater towards us because in the end, all they want is to be successful and get more viewership and more money, etc. And so they start gearing their content towards the information that their user base is wanting to hear. Or they’re designing their social media platforms in a way that allows these echo chambers to occur. So now these echo chambers or these media platforms are becoming… Partisan media platforms are rising and now this media is making the population even more polarised, which then reinforces them wanting to find more like-minded information. And then the cycle continues and continues and continues. I think that this is kind of where we are at now where these complex dynamics are occurring, where we’re kind of being reinforced with our belief systems by media, but we’re also reinforcing media to do things to make us even more polarised.

Zach: A lot of articles or texts that you read about these subjects try to act as if, you know, try to find some magic bullet for the cause of these things. And clearly, to me, it’s about our human nature. It’s that we are prone to these ingroup versus outgroup tendencies, and clearly there’s all these different ways because we’re social creatures, we are affected by all these different ways we communicate. So all these ways we communicate, whether it’s TV news, whether it’s social media, whether it’s the fact that we sort ourselves into more and more groups and have those in-person conversations, they’re all just various ways to amplify or in some cases defuse our natural tendencies to get at each other’s throats in various ways. And I think Peter Coleman, the well-known mediator and conflict resolution guy who wrote a book about polarisation recently called The Way Out, I think he put it pretty well where he was talking about how people try to find what’s causing this exactly. And it’s like, “No, it’s a bunch of things causing it in various ways. And human interaction is complex, and clearly in different countries it will behave in different ways for cultural or random environmental reasons or whatever.” And I’m curious, do you agree with that that… It sounds like that’s what you were saying as we’re just dealing with all these different ways that affect us.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s very easy to say, “Oh, this is all Facebook’s fault.” [laughs] But I don’t think that that is actually the full answer. Of course, there’s plenty of concerns about how Facebook has handled these kinds of things and whether or not they should have foreseen certain things happening on their platform that have clearly made polarisation worse. However, a lot of the factors are driven by things outside of Facebook’s control. First of all, we can think one thing is government regulation on the internet. We haven’t had updated regulation since 1996 and this clearly has caused a lot of problems. But there’s also a lot of psychological reasons, as you were saying, in terms of our own need to find people that are a part of our ingroup in this tribalism that we now are involved with in politics. And we’re motivated and driven to access information that is going to be agreeing with our worldviews and not be exposed to things that disagree or question what we think. And in the current media environment, this is the perfect grounds for which we can find this information, find whatever information we want that would agree with our view. It’s like we kind of select the facts that we want to choose and build our own realities around this. So of course the psychological processes are playing a huge role as well in this era of political polarisation.

Zach: Yeah, we tend to think of… This is a point that Elizaveta Friesem who I interviewed for the podcast made in her book which is called Media Is Us, we tend to think of media as something out there, something that’s affecting us like something that is something external. But her point is we need to start thinking of media. It’s just us, it’s manifestations of our human nature, right? It’s like the same dynamics that we can get into with no technology or no advanced technology are the same dynamics that can occur in various ways with these various technologies, whether the technology is books or TV news or social media. It’s like the media is us. And I think that’s a really important way to view the world. It’s like, these things that are happening are fundamentally about us as humans.

Emily: Yeah, we’re actually very entangled with media. I definitely agree with the sentiment.

Zach: Another person I interviewed for the podcast was political scientist David Karp and he made the same point you are making. Clearly there are reasons to be angry at Facebook and other social media platforms and don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of anger about Facebook in particular about their arrogance and things that they’ve done. But I think the point you were making and the point he made too is fundamentally there’s a failure of legislation there because we’ve been so gridlocked and not able to pass legislation around these super powerful platforms, you know? And ironically, that’s the gridlock in Congress. It’s due to polarisation so there’s maybe some circular effects there. It’s like we can’t manage or legislate these platforms that are causing and amplifying polarisation because we’re so polarised.

Emily: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. [laughs] I never thought of it that way.

Zach: It’s all related. Anything you feel that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about your work– interesting things about your work?

Emily: Yeah. One of the biggest takeaways that we found in our review is that there’s actually very little research on how media can depolarize people. I think we’re kind of in a moment where we’re all like, “Okay, we’re in this horrible political situation, how can we make this better?” And that’s where I am turning my focus to in my research in the coming years; finding ways that instead of having media be the place where hostility intensifies and polarisation gets worse, we use it as an avenue or a strategy or a tool to actually bridge divides between political opponents. Yeah, a lot of research is not focusing on this yet, however, in the coming years I hope to start to integrate psychological research that we already have started to establish on interventions between political opponents into actual effective interventions in media. I think this is important because we already know that people are not motivated to hear from their policy opponents, they have animosity towards them, they are unmotivated to engage with those they disagree with. And this means that they’re not going to be having these day-to-day interactions with policy opponents or political opponents to help shape their perceptions of their opponents. Rather, I would argue a lot of people are building their perceptions of political opponents through what they see online, through social media, through the news, etc. And this is suggesting that media can be a powerful place for perception building of our opponents. And so I think that we should meet people where they are, which is online and media, and try to find effective solutions to maybe make them like their opponents a little bit more.

Zach: Yeah. And your paper, that was a really good sense that stood out to me and I’ll read it in a second but I think it gets at one of the fundamental mechanisms for thinking about how social media is affecting us and the way it is amplifying polarisation. I’ll read this sentence from your paper, “Given that people are unwilling to engage in day-to-day interactions with their political adversaries, many build their impressions of opponents via the media, meaning social media is increasingly shaping how we perceive the political environment.” And I think that’s a key point. Would you agree that if we had to pinpoint one of the fundamental mechanisms, do you feel like that’s the way it’s acting?

Emily: Yeah, exactly. Because first of all we know as we already said earlier, that social media is the place where outrageous content gets spread. So this is the place where if I’m a Democrat, let’s say, and you’re gonna see a Republican, you’re going to see a Republican doing something extreme, outrageous, maybe violent, or very stereotypical but with a negative light to this. Something that’s very out there. And you’re gonna see this online and you’re also not going to have many interactions in your day-to-day life to compare it to to say, “Okay, well, maybe what I saw online was kind of extreme and out there, but not every Republican is like this.” Right now in the current political climate that we see, people are not really building these perceptions in their day-to-day interactions, and therefore they’re not having this moderating effect where they realise that their policy opponents or their political opponents are not that different from them in actuality. And instead, they’re just seeing this extreme content online which makes them feel like, “Wow, the Republicans or the Democrats, they’re very extreme. They’re really out there.” And that’s further reinforcing this polarisation. But I argue that maybe because this mechanism occurs, that perhaps we can flip the switch and actually depolarize people as well.

Zach: Yeah, I think it’s getting at the root cause because, you know, it’s that our psychological tendency to perceive the other group as homogenous. And so when we see these extreme statements by the other side by the more extreme and unreasonable, people on the other side drives our perception of that group as a whole, which in turn informs the statements we make about the other group, which in turn drives how they perceive us, etc, etc. And in part, a big part of that I think too is the way that insults drive group identity. And that was another person I interviewed for the podcast who was Karina Korostelina, I interviewed her about her book about how insults and perceptions of insults and threats drive group identity, drive group anger, and I think that’s a big part of it, too. We perceive the other group as increasingly threatening to us as these dynamics ramp up. And I think that’s… Yeah, so I think that statement in your paper really gets to the core of how these things are affecting our worldview.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that probably is kind of explaining why people believe that they’re more ideologically polarised than they actually are. Because they’re just seeing all of this extreme content from the other side.

Zach: And from our own side, too. It’s like that kind of drives us to think the more extreme views are more prevalent than they are. 

Emily: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That’s absolutely true.

Zach: Yes, I’m curious. There’s work by Levi Boxell and his team showing how older Americans are more polarised than younger Americans. And one of the conclusions that people make around that study is that that shows that older Americans, because they presumably consume less social media, this shows that social media can be playing that bigger role. I’m curious what you think of that study and how you see it as fitting in.

Emily: Yeah, so this is definitely a place where we can implement that correlation does not mean causation. Of course, I think that it’s very persuasive evidence to suggest, “Oh, social media must not have a big influence. It’s the people that use social media the least are the ones that are the most polarised.” However, I would counter that this is actually much more complex than that. There’s a lot of other factors that can be complicating and shaping this relationship. So it could be that when people are young and they’re exposed to social media, it has a polarising effect. And it’s still as important to think about how the social media is polarising people. It could also be that for older people, the reason that they’re more polarised could be something completely different and has nothing to do with the effect of social media potentially. It could be because they choose to watch traditional news media to a greater degree than younger people, and perhaps that’s what’s polarising them to a greater degree. It could also be their own dispositions. For example, as people get older, they tend to become more concerned with threat. And this could have psychologically differential effects on how people are reacting and responding to political information. So I don’t have a direct answer of what that could be but I think we have to think about this as a very complicated situation and not make very simple conclusions based on an association.

Zach: Right, and I interviewed Levi Boxell and that was an interesting conversation because his work kind of pushed back on or questioned the idea that social media played an effect. But as you say and as I talked about in that podcast with him, I was pushing back and saying well, that doesn’t mean that social media is not a significant amplifier of things for various reasons. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways– some of the ways you mentioned. And one other way is that social media can play an indirect role in society by making young people more extreme in their behaviours, and then older people perceiving that that behaviour and social media takes get picked up as news. So you could be watching Fox News and see they often highlight things that are related to social media or even theoretically caused by social media. And that can have an indirect way of affecting older people. But that’s just one example. But as you say, they can be two different dimensions acting simultaneously, and one doesn’t necessarily impact the other. 

Emily: Yeah. 

Zach: Yeah. I’m really surprised that more… When I look at the papers and research on this, I’m surprised there isn’t more work about the methods by which these tools can be used to reduce polarisation and depolarize people. So I think it’s great that you’re working on that. Are there certain things that stand out to you as, you know… Like, say you suddenly took charge of Facebook, are there certain things that you would change immediately that you think would have a big effect?

Emily: Well, I think if I was hired by Facebook, they wouldn’t be very happy with me because I think that the focus I would have is less about finances, only in what’s best for the bottom line. But I think that one of the biggest things is the spread of outrageous content, and also as the spread of misinformation. These things spread as well, if not better than true information and not less outrageous content. So I guess what I would suggest for social media is to kind of use our psychology to find solutions for these things. If we know that people are going to be most likely to react to outrageous content or most likely to share something that’s misinformation about COVID vaccines or something, we should not be incentivizing the platform to further promote these posts. I actually was watching a documentary recently and they were discussing what WhatsApp is doing to– which is owned by Facebook– to reduce the spread of misinformation. And now they’ve changed the rules so that in WhatsApp groups of 20 people or so, you can only forward messages to up to five groups; I think it is. But then if you do the math on this, if everyone from every group is continuing to share to a bunch of other groups, even if it’s only five groups at a time instead of the unlimited amount that had been previously, you can get to 3 million people in a matter of a few terms. So I think that this situation is very complex and difficult. Even when we put barriers and walls up to try to minimise these effects or disincentivize Facebook from allowing outrageous content to be promoted more, I don’t really have a clear answer, actually. I think it’s something that’s complicated. [laughs]

Zach: Well, sure. I think the problem is even tougher than a lot of people think, because in terms of trying to categorise what counts as outrageous content or bad content is clearly a line that no one can agree on. And I think that’s the fundamental problem we’re dealing with. Also, the problem is that even if you had rules that you thought were quite reasonable, it’s very hard to apply that across a huge platform where people are making millions of posts a day. How do you programmatically enforce that? I think there’s several things that even just at a conceptual definition of the problem part and then in implementation, it’s vastly confusing. And that’s part of what bugs me about Facebook and these other groups. It’s the arrogance and just rolling these things out in. You know, we apparently are partially deranged by these technologies but then they roll them out in places where you can completely foresee that there would be very bad effects in a population that was already prone to group versus group violence. You know, these kinds of things. And that’s what really gets me about the arrogance of these platforms just thinking like, “Hey, it’ll all be fine. We don’t have any real responsibility for thinking about the implications of this stuff.”

Emily: Pulling back a moment a little bit to determining which content should and should not be shared or promoted or whatever, there’s a lot of ethical questions about that, too, of who decides? And this is another layer of complexity to this situation that makes very difficult situation. The work that I’ve been more focused on rather than actually shifting platform dynamics is focusing in on the content that reduces political polarisation. So it’s like, “What does somebody have to say in a social media post to reduce your animosity towards them, for example?” And with that, it’s a little bit more straightforward because you’re not dealing with all of the complexities of the social media platforms and the moving dynamics of all of them and how to handle the infrastructure of this. And basically, one pathway that we found that seems to be effective– this isn’t published yet, I want to be clear about that. We’re still in preparation and data collection- But it seems that when people highlight their own personal experiences that drive their opposing political views– so for example, if I say I disagree with you on gun policy because I’ve had a harmful personal experience with guns, I was hurt by a gun or I could have been hurt if I hadn’t had a gun to protect myself, for example, and that experience has driven my my attitudes towards gun policy, it makes you much more willing to respect me and to be tolerant of me. This reduces dehumanisation. It has a lot of benefits for the ways that the left and right engage with one another. And what’s interesting is that this strategy is much more effective than if political opponents share facts with each other. So if I tell you that I base my views on gun policies based on data and statistics, you respect me less than if I share because of my own harmful firsthand experiences.

Zach: Yes, getting back to the hidden role of how powerful emotions are in all of this, we tend to think of these things as being about issues or facts. It’s like the emotional part of this, the narrative part of this is a much bigger thing than people tend to realise. 

Emily: Also, I think given the rise of misinformation on social media and now throughout society, it’s made it much easier for us to doubt and question data and statistics. We actually show in some of our published work that personal experiences are seen as more true than facts. Even if those facts are from real statistics from real reports, that is still seen as less true than a personal experience. And we’re living in a reality where facts actually don’t matter and people take them with a grain of salt. And I think that that’s troubling, but also very interesting.

Zach: Yeah, this kind of gets into cutting ourselves a break more. I mean, because we’re talking about how animosity and emotion drive these things. And I think if we’re going to get over these things, I don’t see us solving these things with technology. I see us, whether we fail or not, whether we fail or succeed, we’re going to succeed by maturing as a people. One way or another, we have to get used to what these efficient forms of communication do to us, and we have to be able to cut people slack more and realise that for example, we do live in a confusing world where you go online and you can see all sorts of things at the touch of a button. We have to start realising that other people are just responding to various things in their environment. They’re the people they’re with and the media they consume. And I see that as it kind of has to start or be implemented at a personal growth level or at some level. And maybe that’ll happen naturally where we just start getting used to these things and realise that we’re deranging ourselves in some way. But I don’t know, I’m not very optimistic about that. I just see it as something has to change as a people. Sort of like some people criticised books back in the day for deranging people with all these new ideas and such, and it’s like part of that is a true observation but we also need to get used to these technologies and realise how they’re affecting us. I guess that’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

Emily: Yeah, we have to learn how to work alongside them rather than work against them. [laughs]

Zach: Yeah, and I think that’s why your research and other people’s similar work is so important. We need to get those ideas out to people in the mainstream. I feel like so much mainstream coverage of these things is not focusing on these issues. It’s like they’ll make a point about people’s anger about the issues and about specific issues, but they never tie it back to these things that many people know are the root cause and going on under the surface. And I think getting people in news organisations and such and politicians more aware of how we can bring people together by addressing how all this stuff is happening and not looking at it so much as an us-versus-them problem but as just a people problem, I think that’s kind of key to where we need to go and that’s why I’m interested in these areas. I’m just so disappointed by politicians, by journalists who don’t make these connections who don’t make an effort to look under the surface of what’s happening.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like when we recognise that the polarisation issue isn’t because they’re wrong and I’m right, but rather that this is how our psyches work and the system that is set up is making it the perfect breeding ground for polarisation, I think that it could make us feel more like we’re united together trying to confront an issue as a team rather than this tribalism.

Zach: Totally. No, that’s great. Yeah. And so I want to thank you for your work on this and I wish more people were doing similar work and getting out there. So yeah, thanks again and thanks for the talk.

Emily: Yeah, thank you so much.

Zach: That was Emily Kubin. You can follow her on Twitter @emily_kubin. My name is Zachary Elwood, you can follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer.

If you found the ideas in this podcast important, please consider sharing it with your friends and family. I think these ideas are important; that’s why I focus on them. I think these are super important ideas that are at the core of our dysfunction and what seems to be our escalating path of destruction. And I focus on these things because I am disappointed that more leaders and journalists don’t focus on helping spread the word about these problems. These are not complex ideas; they are ideas anyone can understand, and getting more people to think about them may hold the key to us solving our problems.  

And just a reminder that I have quite a few other episodes about political polarization psychology and about social media effects. And just a reminder about the piece I wrote about social media, which you can find by searching online for “zachary elwood social media medium” 

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