How does Facebook increase political animosity and polarization?, with Jaime Settle

In this episode of the People Who Read People podcast, I interview Jaime Settle, a political scientist and professor at William and Mary. A transcript of this talk is below.

Settle is the author of Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America. In that book, she summarizes thinking on American political polarization and describes the research she’s done, which shows that Facebook likely increases “psychological” or perceived political polarization, in the form of Facebook users becoming increasingly antagonistic towards members of the opposite political party.

I talk to Dr. Settle about what the psychological pathways are behind how social media polarizes us, what the downsides of extreme political polarization are, and what we can all do to decrease the most dangerous forms of this polarization.

Links to this episode:

Topics discussed include:

  • Are there inherent aspects to internet communication that are likely to increase polarization, even apart from specific product feature choices?
  • What is the pathway of how Facebook users (or other social media users) become more aware of others’ political views and more judgmental of them?
  • What are the psychological tendencies humans have that are activated by social media?
  • How does the idea that social media increases polarization relate to work by Levi Boxell et al that shows that older Americans are the most polarized?
  • How does this idea relate to contact theory, which posits that interactions between groups can decrease group-associated animosity?
  • How does the out-group homogeneity effect play a role in polarization?
  • What can we all do to bring down political animosity?

Related resources:


Zachary Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m your host, Zachary Elwood. 

In this episode, I interview Dr. Jaime Settle, a political scientist and professor at the College of William and Mary. I talk to Dr. Settle about her work studying the impacts of Facebook on political polarization. If you use social media and sometimes have the feeling that “This stuff is tearing us apart,” this will be an episode you’ll find interesting and important. 

Personally, I think these topics are very important. We’re currently seeing increasingly polarized countries and degradation of democracies around the world; could the internet and social media be playing a role here? It seems likely that something is happening here. And even if it’s far from the major factor, perhaps there are benefits to understanding the pathways by which it CAN increase animosity. Maybe it can be used as a force for good, even if we can argue about the degree to which its having a negative effect. 

Dr. Settle has a book where she summarizes her Facebook research; it’s called Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America. It’s a great book. To quote one review: “’Easily the most comprehensive, theory-driven examination of social media and political polarization to date.’ Diana Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication, University of Pennsylvania. If you go look at the book on Amazon, you’ll see a bunch of other reviews extolling how great it is. And it’s a great book just for understanding the background of how the U.S. has become increasingly polarized, and what the thinking on that topic has been, even apart from social media impacts. I recommend it; it is an academic book, so a little expensive; it’s on Amazon Kindle for $24 and there’s a paperback format, too. But if you’re interested in these areas, it’s a must-read. 

I’ll do a quick summary of Dr. Settle’s work that she describes in Frenemies: 

Her research showed that people who used Facebook become more polarized, in the sense that they have more disdain for members of the other political party and more preference for same-political-party contacts. This is not conclusive, as it can be hard to distinguish cause from correlation, but through a variety of methods she showed that it was probable that Facebook was the cause of this effect. 

Her research suggested the main pathway for this effect was in how Facebook affected previously non-political people. Most people avoid talking politics, because it’s a contentious topic. For these people, Facebook let them see indicators from their contacts of the political groups they were in. This could be explicitly political content, but it could also just be cultural aspects and non-political things that have come to take on political group associations. So this means that even fairly apolitical people can give signals of their associated political group, whether they are trying to or not. 

If you listened to my last podcast, which was about extreme political polarization, you know that as a nation becomes more polarized, the conflicts start to be more about group identity and signifiers of the group identity. In the U.S., as we’ve become more polarized, there are more and more things that indicate to people, rightly or wrongly, what their group is and what their other associated views might be. So essentially these previously apolitical people start to judge their Facebook connections more, to put them in various buckets, in ways that wouldn’t have often happened before wide social media use. 

This is not to suggest that social media is the only reason, or even the main reason, for political polarization. By objective measures, the U.S. has been becoming more polarized for decades. 

This also doesn’t mean that we are actually as polarized as we perceive ourselves to be. As Dr. Settle talks about in her book, the polarization is largely a perceived one, what she calls “psychological polarization,” and this is separate from how far apart on specific issues we are. Because on the issues we are not as polarized as most people perceive. 

I was reading a recent study on polarization called Hidden Tribes, which you can find at To quote from their work: 

Most Americans are tired of this “us-versus-them” mindset and are eager to find common ground. This is the message we’ve heard from more than 8,000 Americans in one of our country’s largest-ever studies of polarization: We hold dissimilar views on many issues. However, more than three in four Americans also believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.

If you’d like to learn more about this podcast, go to and there are episode descriptions and links there. I’ve recently done some other interviews on political polarization topics so if you enjoy this episode you might like some of the other ones.

Here’s the interview with Dr. Jaime Settle. Hi, Dr. Settle. Welcome to the show.

Jaime Settle: Thanks so much for having me.

Zach: Yeah, thanks so much for coming on. Your book was really great and very interesting, I learned so much from it. Can you talk a little bit about how you got interested in the subject of Facebook and political polarization?

Jaime: Sure. I came at it from two different angles. One, from the perspective of a political psychologist who had read a lot of the literature on social media and felt that my colleagues who were doing that research were missing part of the big phenomena that was going on, which had to do with the psychological processes in terms of how people were evaluating their fellow users of social media. And a lot of the techniques that other people were using to try to measure polarization, I didn’t think were very effective in terms of capturing the dynamic that I thought was most important. I also had noticed that it seemed like many of my colleagues were primarily thinking of political engagement on social media as a political act, and I think of it as a social act. And it seemed like they were missing a lot of the interpersonal dynamic that was driving behavior. The other part that motivated me was, as an American citizen who used Facebook and had watched with interest over time to see what dynamics seemed to be evolving, and my my sense from the people that I talked to and what I witnessed is that most people felt that their experience using Facebook had led them to learn the political views of other people and to start being more judgmental about what they had seen. And there was a sense that what I was hearing and experiencing was not matching the kinds of questions that we were studying.

Zach: So in your book, you talk about the theory that the main pathway of how this happens on Facebook and probably other social media, too, is that people who were previously pretty non-political apolitical people become more aware of the political views of their context and start to judge them more. Is that an accurate summary of how that pathway works?

Jaime: Yes. Yeah, you got it.

Zach: Also, the really interesting thing, too, that you talked about in your book is how these things that are not necessarily politically associated start to become emblems or indicators of political association. For example, going to Chick-fil-A was an example of yours which somebody might post completely innocently, but that’s going to be perceived as having conservative views. Or hunting, for example, or even just posting something critical of Trump is now perceived as you’re a liberal. Can you talk a little bit about how that fits into the four-step process that you talked about of increasing polarization?

Jaime: Sure. There’s a bit of a paradox in findings coming out of the Pew Research Center who’s done absolutely great survey work on people’s use of social media. The paradox was that the vast majority of people say that they don’t post anything about politics on social media, but even larger numbers say that they are able to characterize the political views of people in their social networks. So, this sets up a situation to understand how can it be that people aren’t posting about politics yet everyone’s learning about other people’s views. What I realized is that we should broaden our understanding of political communication on social media to think about the posting of politically informative content. This is not just the people who are the loudest squeakiest wheels on social media who are always talking explicitly about politics and campaigns and policies and candidates and that sort of thing, these are people who are not in their minds talking about politics. They’re simply sharing things from their personal life. But because of the way that our political identities and our other social and cultural identities have sorted in this country, signaling things about your religious views, about your hobbies, about your food preferences, your entertainment preferences, those things can actually signal to people what your political views are likely to be.

Zach: There was an interesting study by Michael Norton and his colleagues that was basically about how familiarity can breed contempt, and just learning specific things about other people can act in a negative way and we basically end up learning something about them that we don’t like. I wonder if you see that as just a general thing that social media does to us even apart from politics. Do you see that playing into it? Because I can definitely relate personally of learning too much about people basically, even on a non-political basis.

Jaime: It’s an interesting question because, in many ways, that’s the premise on which Facebook was founded, right? This idea that you could connect to anyone and everyone and be able to share and broadcast information and learn about the people around you. There’s certainly a sense that that can happen. I think what’s interesting to think about is both changing norms over time on a platform, as well as norms within subgroups of users. So I think, for example, younger people and older people are using Facebook in very different ways. And I don’t think younger people now think of Facebook as a place where they want to share too much. They don’t want to share personal details because they don’t want to broadcast that information to their entire networks. Whereas I see people my parents’ age who seem still very comfortable in that idea of sharing all of those details. I think that I wouldn’t want to over-generalize to all social media platforms or all demographic users of these platforms, but I do think there’s a sense that when you see someone that’s acting in what you think of as kind of a stereotypical manner, if it’s someone you perceive is a member of your out-group, you are going to develop an association that could lead to a distaste for what they’re doing.

Zach: I’ve often thought that there’s just something fundamental to internet communication. Not even about specific features, there’s something about this that just speeds up human nature, basically. Do you think there’s something to that in the sense that these are tools that are just accentuating parts of our human nature, and obviously, we have very dark aspects of our social psychology and such?

Jaime: I would definitely agree that I think these platforms end up having features that exacerbate our psychological tendencies. I don’t know that they’re always intentional on the part of the designers, though sometimes they are in the sense of how can we design a site that will get maximum attention and engagement from people. That’s appealing to people’s psychology and perhaps even people’s propensity towards addictions, right? I would agree that I think the sites are able to allow us to act on our psychology in ways that can be bad. But there are other aspects of technological innovation that could be incorporated on these platforms that can help us be are better versions of ourselves. So I don’t think it’s inevitable that platforms will bring out our worst tendencies, but it needs to be a very intentional design if you’re going to try to incentivize people to behave on their best behavior.

Zach: Right. I think it’s tough because if you take even Reddit, for example, a very simple format– even forums back in the day or chat interactions back in the day– I think you can find evidence that people think even the simplest forms of these things are addictive. So in a sense, it’s really tough to me because we are attracted to social interactions or even attracted to social conflict. We love getting responses to things and all of these things just seem like fundamental parts of building an online communication tool. I wonder if you think we need to focus more on our responses to these things and there’s maybe too much focus on the specific features.

Jaime: I think yes and no. On the one hand, I think that you could imagine there are some best practices in how we engage online. And if you think about an online civic education for today’s young people, you could imagine emphasizing lessons like stopping to consider whether the information you encounter is true or stopping to think about whether yourself 10 years from now would want what you’re about to post to be part of your permanent online record. I do think there are ways we could become more reflective about how we behave, but realistically, I think bottom-up collective action from social media users is very difficult to coordinate. Because of the prevalence of these sites and how much they’ve become tied into our lives, it’s hard to imagine consumers using their most important tool, which is some sort of boycott. And so I think this is where social media companies do have a responsibility to take human psychology seriously and to make some hard decisions about the features that work really well in driving their engagement metrics, but perhaps are actually a major driver of the negative effects of their platform.

Zach: In that regard, I’m pretty pessimistic about both the companies taking things seriously or having a motivation to do anything about it, and also the failures of our government to legislate in this area. Because really, these things have such world-changing capabilities and our government isn’t legislating in that area.

Jaime: We are definitely in an era of flux right now. I think that 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and it’s going to seem like the Wild West of social media tech. I would say that while I agree social media companies have not acted quickly enough, at the end of the day, they do have an incentive to keep their user base happy and engaged. And so if the way that the norms develop on the platform mean that people don’t want to spend as much time on these sites, the companies just for profit motives are going to have to make changes. And so I’m not giving up that there may be reasons that the interests of social media companies end up aligning with the interests of users, even if it’s not for some sort of normatively desirable reason.

Zach: There was research by Levi Boxell and his colleagues that showed that older people in the US were more polarized and angry than younger people. Which seemed to point to the idea that if there were social media impacts on this, that they would be through more indirect channels like social media conflicts being covered by the news more. What is your opinion on that research and how do you see that playing into your research?

Jaime: Yeah, this article is clearly an instance where economists take their techniques and try to answer a question outside of their domain. And you can tell by the way that they’re conceptualizing what polarization is, they’re bundling together so many different concepts into a single index of polarization, which doesn’t make conceptual sense. Now, yes, they show that these measures are correlated and we should think that they’re correlated. The people who have the strongest opinions are the most likely to have the strongest attitudes about their political outgroup. But those are really two different forms of polarization that political scientists make important distinctions between. So I think that’s my first concern with that article. I think the second concern I have is that they’re not looking at the right counterfactual; what would we expect older people to look like absent social media? And so I think they’re missing a little bit of the point. They use a bit of a straw man argument that social media can’t be the main driving factor for polarization based on the results that they get. I don’t think that’s what anyone who focuses on social media and polarization is arguing. I mean, I’m very careful in my book to make the point that social media could not have the effects that it does, absent a broader political context in which our political elites are very polarized. The way that traditional media sources and social media have become integrated and rely on each other in many ways is also clearly a part of the situation. And we know that older people are much more likely to watch cable news. I believe what they have found based on the methods that they’ve used, I just have some concerns with the way they’re interpreting what they found based on the measurements that they were using.

Zach: That was my thought when I was reading that work. We can both be increasingly polarized over the past seven decades, even while social media can be increasing polarization. That’s my opinion on the topic. And yeah, that jives with what you just said. In your book, you are careful to distinguish between what you call psychological polarization versus actual ideological polarization. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between those two?

Jaime: Sure. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, political scientists were really interested in this question of whether or not the mass public had become more extreme in its issue positions. And for about a decade, that is the debate that defined how as a discipline we thought of mass polarization. And there were camps on each side, you know, those saying, “Yes, there’s evidence that people have become more extreme and have become more ideologically consistent,” and then lots of evidence on the other side suggesting that most people had not actually become more extreme in their preferences on a variety of different policy issues. That debate continues to a certain degree but I think in the process of having that debate, what we realised is that there are other forms of polarization that are not about your issue preferences but are rather about the social dynamic of the two parties interacting. And that you can have fairly moderate views but still have a stretch stronger preference for your political in-group or your political party than you do for the political outgroup.

Zach: Sometimes when talking about polarization to people, I get the response of, “What’s the problem here? Obviously, we’re polarized and we should be polarized because the other group is doing bad things.” What’s your elevator pitch for why people should care about too much polarization and why we should try to bring that down?

Jaime: Well, I think it’s because you can’t put polarization in a box and think that we can isolate it and separate it from other dynamics that we really care about. For example, polarization is very tied to levels of trust in government. And we want, as a country, to have conditions that support trusting our government at all levels to be able to do the right thing. And I think polarization undermines our ability to trust our government if you really think that the other party is a major threat to the very existence of the country. You could also point to media distrust. I think that it’s healthy to have some skepticism about the media. We want to make sure that the media is working for our interests. But when that skepticism turns into cynicism, turns into the thought that the media is working for its own goals and is not working as a watchdog, I think that also really disrupts the cycle of accountability we care about in terms of theories of what makes democratic societies work best. And I think it also should be pointed out that the more fractured a society is, the more vulnerable it is to all sorts of threats to democracy. Whether that is foreign interference, whether that is authoritarian leaders, whether that is massive amounts of civil unrest and protests. So, polarization makes all of these other problems worse. And it’s hard to imagine in our present omen fixing a lot of those problems without addressing this root issue of polarization.

Zach: In your book, you talk about an important factor in all of this called the outgroup homogeneity effect, which is the tendency for us to perceive the outgroup or the other group as monolithic, as not diverse, as people having all the same opinions. That was based on a study from decades ago where a sorority house perceived other members of sorority houses as more monolithic and less diverse than they were. Can you talk a little bit about how that plays into this and how big a role you see that playing?

Jaime: Definitely. This is one of my favorite studies to point to because I think it really resonates with my students. This idea that you recognize people in your own social group as being distinct individuals representing diverse backgrounds and a variety of viewpoints. But when you look at a group on the outside, it’s much easier to perceive them as all believing the same thing or being cut from the same cloth. The way this matters is that on social media and Facebook in particular, when we see people who are talking explicitly about politics, who are commenting on the latest headline or the latest scandal or whatever the case may be, those people are those who have the strongest political views and the strongest ideologies and have the personalities that make them willing to share their viewpoints so openly. When we see people like that who are saying things we agree with who are part of our ingroup, we can recognize them as being the most opinionated and we have a lot of other reference points to be able to put that person’s opinions in context. But when we see the really vocal people from the other side, we don’t have as many friends and as many contacts who share that person’s views, and so it’s harder for us to get a sense as to whether or not that person’s views are representative. And because those are the only sorts of people who tend to talk about politics online, it’s very easy to believe that everyone who’s part of our political outgroup holds those same strong opinionated viewpoints. And so it’s very easy to believe that the other side is much more extreme and ideologically consistent than they are in reality.

Zach: It really comes down to our tendency to stereotype things. We want to simplify things because it’s hard to always consider the nuance in every situation so our brains seem to be set up to form these generalizations. That, to me, is such the big effect going on here. Because on the liberal side, you just see so many people that act as if Trump’s supporters are this monolithic creature where everyone has the same thoughts and where everyone is as bad as the worst Trump supporter. I know conservative people and I go out of my way to try to learn what they’re thinking, and there’s just such a diversity of opinion. Obviously we can debate what is going on here and what the problems are with political ideology, but at the end of the day, this is a very diverse group and they don’t see the problems that you see and they don’t have the same opinions as the worst Trump supporter. I know a Trump supporter that calls people that go to Trump rallies morons, for example. It’s just such a diverse group and I think to me, that’s the big problem. It’s boiling these things down to, “These are clearly horrible people that all have these traits that I’d imagine they have.” Obviously, that’s a problem on both sides, but I think that’s really what we need to combat as far as if we were going to create an education program about this thing to teach people when they’re young. Do you see that as one of the main things to focus on that effect?

Jaime: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting point. Because, again, I think that when many of these sites got started, the whole goal was to try to overcome those divisions, right? I mean, we know in our country that there are major geographic and regional and class and educational divides, and so it can be harder to be personally acquainted with people whose lives look very different than your own. The irony is that in many ways, social media was supposed to help us overcome that and was supposed to help facilitate constructive interactions with people who are different than us, but the way it’s worked out– and I think for many of the reasons that you mentioned earlier in terms of the very nature of communication in a computer-mediated format, the ideal circumstances that are necessary for contact theory and this idea that being exposed to people who are different than you can help change your stereotypes about them. We don’t have the ideal conditions for contact theory to work. We don’t have situations in which people arrive at equal footing and think that they’re working towards a common goal. And so it is much easier for social media to end up reinforcing stereotypes than it is to help us overcome the stereotypes that we bring with us.

Zach: Yeah, I was just going to ask you about contact theory. Because I was reading about that and how the idea that coming in contact with people brings down negative associations with that group. Yeah, I think there’s a few factors there. For example, online communication is distant and dehumanizing in a way that in-person contacts is not. In-person or even audio or video calls brings out a more human element. I’m curious if you see that being a factor in why we wouldn’t be seeing some of the benefits of contact theory.

Jaime: Definitely. I do think it’s not set up in a way to facilitate people getting to know each other as people first before those group identities become salient. I think the other problem is that social media does not, as it’s designed now, is not set up to help people work towards some sort of collective aim or collective goal. When you look at theories… When you look at contact theory and you look at these necessary conditions, part of the mechanism that’s at work is that people have a reason to think that coming together or working together, there’s a benefit to doing that. And in the arena of online political communication, it’s not even clear what that goal should be. Right? It’s very different than formal setups of deliberation where you’re asked to try to understand other people’s perspectives and to try to reach consensus on your disagreement.

Zach: And just online, there’s a tendency. It pre-selects for brief unnuanced messages and also sort of statements as opposed to a back and forth. Even on Facebook. When you post something on Facebook, even when you get a response, the responses are not like a back and forth, they take the form of like, “Here’s a statement. Here’s a statement. Here’s a statement.” Wherein in in-person conversation, there’s a natural give and take that we all have as social creatures, which is really lacking here.

Jaime: And the ability to modulate your voice or your facial reactions or your body language in a way that signals that you’re listening or that you want to know more and that you’re curious. All of those things are very difficult to translate into short online communication.

Zach: So your work could be classified, I think, under the medium theory area where people study how the forms of media changes and affect us, which is the same area that Marshall McLuhan worked in with his medium is the message idea. I was reading about that more the last few days and I was kind of surprised that it seemed like medium theory wasn’t really much in favor these days and not many people were working in that area. Am I getting an accurate sense there? Because it just seems so obvious to me that the forms that these media take will affect us, and your work is a very good example of how the these kinds of things might work. Are you surprised that more people don’t study that or talk about that area more?

Jaime: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that academic research is always going to lag changes in technology and society. And the faster technology is changing, the harder it’s going to be for academic research to keep up. And so while it seems like social media were introduced forever ago, now, if you actually think about what it would take to test through an emergence of a technology, and then to observe what’s going on, come up with some sort of theory about it, and try to test those theories to see if your instincts are right, it takes time. And so I think part of what we’re seeing is that social media is so new and it’s changing so rapidly that it is harder for academics to process and focus on the nuances of these differences. I think that’s compounded in this case by the fact that so much of the medium of social media isn’t a black box, right? We really know very little about how the algorithms work on different platforms. We know very little about the variety in the norms that different subgroups on these sites use. It just takes some time to understand what’s going on, and in the process of trying to understand that, the affordances on your site might change. Right? Facebook might roll out some big change to its platform that disrupts the way people have been using it. Or you might see a shift where younger people are no longer using a platform and the attention has moved on to the next big thing. And so I think that it’s not so much that we’ve stopped thinking that it’s important to understand the way that the technology is designed affects the way that we use it or affects our psychology, it’s just harder to do in an era of technology that is changing so rapidly.

Zach: One thing that I’ve really thought and I’ve been surprised I haven’t seen people talk about– I actually sent it to [John Hight] on Twitter and he retweeted it. He’s done so much work on social media division aspects and I was really surprised he didn’t know about this study which was Gerard and Deutsch study from the ’50s. It was about how people seem to be more stubborn in their beliefs when they write things down, and it was writing things down privately and writing things down publicly. So, even the people that wrote things down privately were clinging more to the things they had said later, but especially for the people that have written something down publicly. This was just about the length of lines, basically, so it was not something important. But it showed that writing things down made people more stubborn and made them cling to their ideas more and kind of wanting to be self-consistent probably. Do you know much about that study and do you see that as being a big effect in social media?

Jaime: I don’t. Actually, that’s fascinating. It resonates. I think that makes a lot of sense to me. Society for hundreds of years has used paper documents as a way to formalize contracts and negotiations so it wouldn’t surprise me that we come to associate writing something down with a way of making it more permanent. But I’m not familiar with that study and I’m not sure I’ve read anyone in particular that’s applied that idea to social media, specifically.

Zach: Yeah, that’s the surprising thing to me. I’m actually working on this article now and that, to me, is such a powerful effect and I can just feel it. When we write something down… I think we’ve all had the experience of reading something on social media and then being like that was a pretty bad take, but then feeling this defensive urge to defend it in kind of a way of like, “Well, I want to be consistent and I want to defend this and not look stupid, etc, etc.” So yeah, I just see that as playing such a big role. And if I was going to feel like I was making any contribution, I think it would be bringing people’s attention more to that idea because I think we all have that defensive quality.

Jaime: And I think that makes sense with a lot of the work that’s done in psychology about social media, which is the self-presentational aspects. Right? What are the decisions we choose to make about representing ourselves in this space? And it makes sense that we would try to be coherent and consistent. Right? That means that once you’ve posted something, you need to stick with it or be accused of being a hypocrite.

Zach: Yeah. If I was putting together that class on educating people about the worst effects, it would be there’s nothing wrong with going back and changing things and admitting you’re wrong. And I think we all have to become more comfortable with that idea as a species, really. Because it goes against our nature, but we have to internalize this concept that yeah, it’s totally normal to write something bad on social media.

Jaime: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: You end your book with a note and you talk about it in some video that I’ve seen in your talks too. You talk about the idea that one path forward, one thing that we can all do to help this process is by showing that we have diverse political identities in the sense that we all don’t fit into our various political groups in various ways. For example, there was Pew research that showed three out of ten people in each political group in the US didn’t align with their party’s stance on abortion, for example. But there’s so many things where we don’t fit the stereotype of our group and your point was we need to share that more often and show that we are not as ideologically polarized and we’re not as monolithic as people perceive. I think that’s a really great point.

Jaime: You know, I was struck. In the past few days, I hadn’t thought about that idea in a while, but I use Facebook and I’m scrolling through Facebook and I saw an image of a woman dressed in camo and holding a gun and I think she was in front of a pickup truck. And it was an image that to me, immediately evoked the the cultural signals that I associate with the Republican Party. And then I looked at the text below it and it was an argument. It was her linking of her core conservative values to why her vote for Joe Biden was going to be a better fit in this election. That was exactly what I was thinking about when I made that recommendation, which is essentially that we can use the power of social media to actively disrupt these associations. I think a lot of people are focused on the civility aspect of social media and how do we make social media a place where people with more moderate views want to talk about politics or share their opinions. In my view, that’s misplaced. People who are moderate are just less interested in politics and tend to have weaker political convictions, and so asking them to express their political views on social media is something they don’t want to do. I’m not sure there’s any change to a technology or a norm that we could make to incentivize them to contribute. But they could be willing to do things like this woman– whoever she was on this viral image I’ve seen on Facebook– that actively tries to make new associations and says, “Just because I do X, Y, and Z, doesn’t mean I’m going to be a member of this party. And I think we can do it in more subtle ways as well. You don’t have to share who you’re going to vote for in an election. But trying to break those associations in our minds is something that I think would go a long way in disrupting the more psychological forms of polarization.

Zach: That’s a great point. I think it’s something I’ve been trying to do kind of instinctually by, for example, criticizing some of the things I see as bad liberal ideas. And I get flack for that. But I think the point to me is that we are diverse, that we can be diverse, and I think there can be a tendency these days for people to feel like, “Well, look, Trump supporters are very at least perceived and seem to be more monolithic in the sense of they’re not as critical about Trump, for example. And so maybe we should all just get together and not be critical of each other.” I think that’s the wrong direction to take, as you talk about. I think the direction to take is let’s all show how nuanced and diverse in viewpoints we can be because that’s the truth and it also brings down polarization.

Jaime: Yeah, I agree with that.

Zach: So if you controlled Facebook… One last question, if you controlled Facebook and wanted to make decisions that were better for society, do you have a wish list of things that you would immediately change for that?

Jaime: I think more what it would be is I’d want to systematically and transparently try a variety of different changes to see what works. I’m not sure there’s one panacea. I’m not sure there’s one fix that would take care of all of these issues. But I do think that there could be some smaller subtler changes, and even knowing what doesn’t work would be really helpful. And to Facebook’s credit, I think they’re making much more of an effort recently to open up and work with academics to try to understand these bigger questions about the effects of their platform and I think they’re moving in the right direction on that. So, what I would be interested in is the features that activate these bad instincts of human psychology and figuring out is there a way to change some of those. Like the amount of visible social feedback you get on a post that you make, could changes be made to that in a way that doesn’t have the unintended consequence of driving down engagement on the platform. And so I think the more that they can be open about what changes have which kinds of effects, I think the better off we will be.

Zach: This has been Dr. Jaime Settle. Do you want to talk about anything you’re working on now or how people could contact you or anything like that?

Jaime: I will say my current book project is actually about face-to-face political communication after diving into social media. I continue to work on that and have some projects bubbling, but I’m also very interested in other forms of interpersonal communication. I always love hearing from people. Please feel free to reach out to me with questions or ideas, and I look forward to hearing from your listeners.

Zach: And you’re at William & Mary, was that right?

Jaime: I am.

Zach: Okay. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was very educational and I really recommend Dr. Settle’s book for anyone interested in this area.