A talk with political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff (www.zeitzoff.com), who has studied political conflicts. We talk about survey results that seem to show an increase in Americans’ willingness to think political violence is justified, and how that relates to our fears about future violent conflicts and “civil war” scenarios in America. Other topics discussed include: the psychology of polarization; the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media in that; the effects of social media on society in general.
Transcript is below.
Links to this episode:
Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:
- The Twitter thread of Zeitzoff’s talked about in this episode
- Washington Post article mentioned in episode with quote from Zeitzoff
- Vox article ‘How does this end?’ discussed in episode
- One of many articles highlighting the survey that found an increase in Americans who think political violence can be justified
- A Twitter thread by Michael Bang Peterson about the role of social media in politics
- Interview examining question of how many Trump supporters actually believe the election was rigged
- One of Zeitzoff’s papers about social media effects on conflict
Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding others, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com.
America is deeply divided; a significant percentage of the country, roughly 60% of Republican voters according to polls, believes that the 2020 election was not legitimate.
In a previous podcast, an interview with Thomas Pepinsky, we talked about that topic; we delved into some skepticism I had about what we can really tell from such surveys; for example, are some people who say “the election was rigged” on surveys just lashing out, just expressing frustration and suspicion, in a similar way to how that may have been the case for a significant number of the Democrat voters in 2016 who said the same thing about Trump’s election? Clearly distrust in our elections is a serious and concerning thing, especially when political leaders promote it, but I think we should be hesitant to reach firm conclusions about what such surveys tell us, considering how polarized we are and how our emotions can affect surveys.
Related to these topics, you may have seen views expressed in articles and on TV news about the idea that America runs the risk of descending into a civil war of some sort, with significant violence. Often, as evidence to bolster these views, people will point to a specific recent survey that showed that the number of Americans who think that political violence may be justified has gone up significantly over the last few years. And that is worrying. But again, it seems some skepticism and uncertainty is warranted. What exactly are those polls asking and what factors might be influencing people’s responses? Are there dangers to taking the worst-case, pessimistic interpretations of such surveys, in how those interpretations might increase the fear and anger of people across the board?
I’ll read from a January 2022 Washington Post article by Philip Bump:
That there has been a broad discussion in recent days of the prospect of civil war in the United States is, by itself, telling. What drives public conversations is often nebulous, but, here, the proximate cause is obvious. One year ago Thursday, a violent mob surged into the Capitol in an effort to block the election of Joe Biden. So we’ve seen a multipronged discussion about the willingness of Americans to engage in acts of political violence and how far that willingness might extend.
For Vox, Zack Beauchamp spoke with a number of historians and political scientists about the possible trajectories on which the country might be headed. Titled “How does this end?,” the essay summarizes the predictions of those with whom he spoke: “hotly contested elections whose legitimacy is doubted by the losing side, massive street demonstrations, a paralyzed Congress, and even lethal violence among partisans.” […]
But there were also notes of caution. Political scientist Josh Kertzer found one component of Beauchamp’s essay puzzling. “I know a lot of civil war scholars, and… very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war,” he wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, journalist Josh Barro thought Waldman’s essay was frustrating. “There’s this whole segment that wants to ‘talk more’ about authoritarianism,” he wrote, describing one facet of the essay — “to what end? Who are you convincing of what?”
Last month, I spoke with American University associate professor Thomas Zeitzoff on this subject. His focus is political violence and political psychology, and he had publicly objected to a different Post column elevating the concerns expressed by Barbara F. Walter.
Walter is a professor at the University of California at San Diego who wrote a soon-to-be-published book titled “How Civil Wars Start.” She was also one of the featured experts in Beauchamp’s essay.
Zeitzoff’s objections were varied. One, he explained to me, was that elevating concerns about “civil war” could be self-fulfilling. He used the example of two feuding neighbors who observe each other buying weapons and ammunition. The instinct would be to be similarly prepared — raising the risk of a confrontation. Another objection Zeitzoff offered was that surveys suggesting broad support for violence were often vastly overstating the effect, as demonstrated in part by the rarity of such events: particularly compared with the 1960s and 1970s, he pointed out, a period when political violence was far, far more common.
So this episode will be a talk with Thomas Zeitzoff, who was quoted in that Washington Post article I just read. I first noticed Thomas’s work on Twitter where he had a Twitter thread making the points he made in that article. This of course doesn’t mean we can’t worry about or talk about worst-case scenarios or prepare for them, it’s just a matter of recognizing that there can be value in avoiding sensationalistic and confident claims. I’ll read Thomas’s full Twitter thread about that later, during the interview.
Thomas has also studied how social media can affect conflicts and wars, and he’s done research on Ukraine, so we also talk a bit about his takes on the Ukraine Russia conflict, and about social media effects on society in general.
Here’s a little bit about Thomas, taken from his site zeitzoff.com, that’s ZEITZOFF .com :
He’s an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His research focuses on political violence and political psychology. He’s particularly interested in the effects of social media and exposure to violence on political attitudes, why individuals fight, and how leaders mobilize supporters for conflict or peace. My research uses survey and experimental methods drawn from social psychology and behavioral economics, along with large-N analysis.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter at zeitzoff.
I’ve edited the interview a bit. We talked first about the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media on that, but I’ve moved that to the end of the interview.
Let’s go now to the interview with Thomas Zeitzoff. How concerned are you that influential people are crafting some very pessimistic and worst-case framings about the likelihood of violent outcomes in America, and are unintentionally making worst-case scenarios more likely?
Thomas Zeitzoff: I’m concerned because I think just like we were talking about how most people don’t follow politics closely or care that much about politics, I also think that what’s way overstated is the percentage of people who actually support violence. We’re talking about maybe five to 7% of the US population. Maybe 12%, depending on how you’re framing. And if you have a really quirky question framing, you could maybe get it to 15%. So this is still like a very small subset of the population. But political violence is never… Generally, I wouldn’t say never. I would say generally it’s not framed as, “Look, let’s go out and smash the other side.” It’s not, “We’re going to just aggressively go out there and beat people up.” It’s almost always framed in a protective framework as “The other side is so bad that we have to do something extraordinary.” I remember the now disgraced former head of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr had this tweet that kind of summarizes the view of basically…
Because one of the criticisms that a lot of evangelicals and Republicans are getting about the full-throated support of former President Trump was, “How can you support this person? He’s done all these things that are antithetical to your worldview. He’s an adulterer, he’s a freakin liar, cheater, etc.” And Falwell kind of responded and said basically– this is his tweet verbatim. It’s “Conservatives and Christians need to stop electing quote-unquote “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders, but the US needs street fighters like Donald Trump at every level of government because the liberal fascist Dems are playing for keeps. And many Republican leaders are a bunch of wimps.” And so that’s basically saying, “Hey, the other side is so terrible. Liberal fascist step.” That’s not a, “I respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleagues or Democratic colleagues.” And so I think when you amp up these perceptions that violence is coming, and particularly you amp up the belief that they want to destroy us, that’s when you can get a really bad spiral. So that’s why I think a lot of political scientists who study political violence are very queasy both in the sense that I don’t think it’s likely that we end up in a civil war, I think that’s very unlikely. We can talk about more why I think that’s very unlikely. But also that idea of we’re headed towards a civil war also has this kind of– not a self fulfilling prophecy, but a little bit of “Well, if that’s where we’re headed, then we need to play hardball and kind of screw the other side.”
Zach: And one thing that struck me in this area and you can tell me if I’m off base or not, it seems that the more academic and scholarly someone is on these topics related to political violence and democracy, denigration and those kinds of things, the more measured and careful and uncertain they are about when they talk about what how a situation really is and how bad it is. And it seems that the more incendiary extreme takes often come from people who are more just writers, journalists, pundits, some of them not that knowledgeable about history or political violence in general, often just general culture or politics writers who might seem a bit myopic about these topics. And it seems that we’re sometimes being driven into a frenzy by the least knowledgeable people and I’m curious what you think of that observation.
Thomas: Yeah. I would say I largely agree with it. People who are saying we’re headed towards a civil war are partisan pundits who are trying to get attention or sometimes scholars who are pushing some of those viewpoints. And if you actually read what they’re pushing, it’s actually much more nuanced and it’s like, “Well, if we categorize the Civil War as sustained combat between two sides and you have some fatalities, it’s like the political violence that we’ve had for the last eight to 10 years could be classified. I don’t think we’re in a civil war until we see people in the military actively rebelling. That’s where you have to really, really worry. But we’re not anywhere close to that. I do think, though, your point about academics and people who study political violence and democratic decline are very careful. But I think some of them are also worried and I think they’re worried less about the possibility of a civil war, but more about the worry of what does it mean when it becomes hard for one side to actually win free and fair elections? And I think that’s the concern that a lot of folks have. The concern in 2020 and beyond is, will Republicans accept Democrats winning? And if they don’t-
Zach: What happens? [chuckles]
Thomas: Yeah. And that’s the big concern. Like, Daniel Ziblatt who was one of the co-authors of How Democracies Dies, I think he’s not prone to hyperbolic statements. He’s concerned and worried. And I am as well. I’m less worried about a civil war and I’m much more worried about what happens when we have close elections. We’ve been following what’s been going on in Wisconsin with this fake review of, you know? It’s a sham. It’s a partisan sham review saying they’re going to take away and decertify Wisconsin’s electors, right? There’s no precedent for that, it’s not legal, it’s a bunch of pseudo, you know, basically pseudo-partisan posturing. But people always say the states are the laboratories of democracy. Also, they’ve been in the past laboratories of autocracy. A lot of our democratic dysfunction, you can look at what happened in Wisconsin, in North Carolina, in Texas in the lead up to 2020 is a lot of these kinds of contentions over voting rights, over certifying elections, over gerrymandering started in the States first. And so I think there is definitely a worry that, okay, what happens the next time the election is close and partisan election officials try to ram something through? What is the recourse for that?
Zach: Yeah. And to be clear, I think the takeaway is it makes sense logically to be worried and concerned about a whole range of things. But there’s that possibility that framing things as if these very violent outcomes are likely can accelerate the worst-case things, which I think we are on the same page there. Maybe I thought it’d be interesting to get into a granular examination of what it means when people on surveys say something like that they would theoretically be for violent action against the government.
Because when I look at all these surveys recently of these kinds of questions and similar political questions, it always strikes me that there’s various factors involved that make it hard to reach much confident conclusions about what those results mean. And I’ll look at this poll that got a lot of attention recently about the Civil War and violence topics was a 2021 poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland. It got a thousand or so people responding, and the question that got the most attention was this one: Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government? Or is it never justified? And the answers one could choose were Justified, Never Justified, or No Opinion. And the newsworthy thing was that the number of people who said it was never justified had dropped from like 90% in the ’90s to 62% with the latest poll. So about one in three people now said they believe that violence against the government can at times be justified and that had increased substantially. So I’m curious, do you have any thoughts? Because there’s a range of things you could point to in that question, that specific question, that would make it hard to draw conclusions about what it means. I’m curious if you have some thoughts about that question.
Thomas: Yeah. This is actually a very… What does it mean when people answer survey questions? I think that’s-
Zach: In a polarized environment, too. I think that’s the other interesting thing.
Thomas: Yeah. I mean, this is Phil Converse, John Zoller, all these scholars it’s like political scientists… When we see this, we’re like, “Oh, don’t pull back the curtain on how people answer surveys.” We don’t want to let the public know. But yeah, it’s complicated. So some people just say what’s on the top of their head, other people take cues from elites. Sometimes people also… Like, there’s evidence that certain survey respondents troll. I always think of it back to when I was in middle school in elementary school, we would take these tests like the national tests on substance abuse where they would ask you, “Have you done drugs?” And they would always throw in a fake drug like [Chromees] to see if… Because there were people in your class, there’d be a couple of kids would say, “I’ve done it all. Math? Yes. Heroin? Yes. Black tar heroin? Yes. Crack cocaine. Just great, I’ve been smoking it.” Right? And then, “Oh, yeah. I did [chromees].” But that was to pick up people who were trolling. And I think there are people who do that as well, there’s some evidence on that. So that’s all the different ways that people can respond. And then when you think about question-wording, are we talking about violence being just like, “What do you mean by violence? Are you talking about taking up arms and actively protesting? Are you talking about maybe some kind of [crosstalk] civil disobedience that’s sort of not violent but maybe is threatening? Are you talking about getting in people’s faces and shouting?” So that’s a concern. I do think, though, that one thing that is fair is you can criticize individual survey question for the snapshot that it is, but I do think the trendline is something to worry about for sure. That’s a part where you can say, well, presumably people who have taken this over time, right? Yes, there’s issues with question- wording and how people respond. But the changes or the shifts in that is something to be concerned about. And I think that’s part of Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, one of their arguments and I think probably one of the more convincing parts of their story is that even if violence is rare and rarely acceptable, it’s still more common in our politics than it was 10, 15, and 20 years ago. That’s something to worry about, this politics of menace as some people have put it.
Zach: And another thing for that survey is to read from an article about it, “Previous surveys were conducted by phone while the new poll was largely conducted online. And studies have found respondents are more willing to voice socially undesirable opinions in self-administered surveys than when asked by an interviewer.” So that was theoretically another thing, getting it to how people are more willing to say so anti-social things or whatever when they’re distant from a survey taker.
Thomas: Oh, yeah. We can talk all about how it used to be the response rates for surveys have dropped. And it’s crazy, back in the day they used to get like 70% or 80% of people would respond and be willing to take a telephone survey when Gallup started doing surveys.
Zach: Yeah, it was exciting.
Thomas: Yeah, I know it was. I would be delighted to get my opinion on Congress. 70% of Americans trust Congress. Right? We’re way away from that.
Zach: Yeah. Now we’re bombarded with questions all the time seeking our opinion and we’re burnout. And to the trolling point, Trump has added to that in his animosity towards the media. I’ve seenconservatives basically say, “When survey takers ask you questions, just lie to them because it’s all fake news anyway when you discredit them.” So that’s a real thing.
Thomas: Or even if they’re willing to answer the question right. This is one of the big issues that happened in 2020 and 2016, right? The national vote was pretty accurate, more or less for Biden, but there were some really big misses and especially at the state level. And part of this is that there are certain people who maybe pretend to be male, they tend to maybe have some high school, right, and you have very low trust. And we know that that is correlated with support for Trump so it’s actually really hard to figure out what are you supposed to do with that. The fact that you can’t just rewrite your survey, those are people who are actually missing from the sample but that matter in time for voting. These are people who are socially alienated and or have low institutional trust so they’re not going to respond to your survey. And it’s not that it’s randomly Democrats or Republicans, it tends to skew towards Republicans specifically towards people who are highly identified Trump supporters.
Zach: And to be clear, I agree that it is a worrisome trend because clearly we’ve had street violence and such, and clearly we’ve had January 6th and things like that. But yeah, it’s just interesting thinking how the fact that we are a very polarized society can lend itself to answering questions that may not be what someone actually feels for various reasons. It can just be to vent or to score, to feel like you’re scoring a point against the other side, and these kinds of things. Another interesting thing that occurred to me about that survey was just the sheer fact that we are so focused on politics on both sides, like you know, liberals have analogies they’ll make to World War Two or Nazi Germany or whatever, and conservatives have analogies they’ll make to the Revolutionary War or what have you. And just being more aware of politics, I think would make one more likely to answer yes to that question. Because I think it’s totally logical to answer yes to a theoretical question that, you know, is it ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government? I mean, clearly in some universe even if you don’t live in it, it can be justified to take violent action against government. Yeah, the question itself was not about America, it was just a theoretical question. And it made me think, “Well, yeah, I would answer yes to that because obviously, it’s theoretically justified at some point.”
So I think there’s an element of even just being more aware of politics and political history would make one more likely to answer yes to that question, which we’re all more focused on politics these days in general. It gets to questioning these survey results– which I think they’re valuable, don’t get me wrong, and they do tell us important things– but I think it’s getting back to our main point of questioning and being skeptical of the most extreme interpretations of these things is a good thing to be.
Thomas: Yeah. And I think it also suggests to me, in my view, that surveys are really useful and helpful for a lot of reasons; for getting the polls, how do people feel on issues, etc. But I think if we want to know where do we need to be concerned, it’s at the elite level. That’s the level when we’re talking about party activists. People who are serving in our election administration, the fact that we have partisan elections is also… [laughs] We can talk about that in a second. But I think that’s where we want to be concerned. It’s, “Who are the people who are very politically active who are running caucuses and primaries are shaping party platforms and abetting candidates? How do they feel about political violence on the other side? And there, I think, you can say that that’s where we should be concerned in some respect. Not so much about political violence, but about particularly respect for democracy.
Zach: That’s a great point and I often point out that it’s very important to distinguish between citizen behavior and political leader behavior. You’ll sometimes see people make that conflation that they are similar or the same. Somebody, for example, might say, “Well, I’ll excuse Trump’s behavior because of what these liberal citizens are doing.” Those are two completely different things. I would never base my judgment of a leader and their morality or their ethics based on what some random citizens are doing. Because we have all kinds of citizens and I don’t expect very much from them, basically. So I think it is a very important point to distinguish those two things and I think it gets into the basic polarisation dynamics of tending to equate the entire other side as being as bad as the worst people in that group, you know? Which is one of the fundamental drivers of polarization. So yeah, distinguishing between that is super important.
Thomas: I just want to add, I think this can even clarify what happened on January 6th. So if we were to do a counterfactual kind of a ‘what if’ history; imagine that you still have to Stop the Steal rally, you still have that movement, but Trump is not parroting it from the White House. Right? We’ve always had fringe movements in Congress. I think that’s the unique part of Trump in many ways. There are a lot of unique parts, but I think that’s one of the most important things. It’s that he governed in his rhetoric and his bombast like a first-term member of Congress just trying to get attention. An outsider. And that spilled over into the rhetoric about Stop the Steal and the fact that you had… There’s always been Paul Gosars, there’s always been [Ryan] Pauls, maybe a few more of them in some sense because of polarization.
But it’s the fact that Trump was there from the precedent saying all those things that I think really was the signal. Because if the signal– maybe if we think about this in terms of a coordination story, right? If a few members of Congress say something, people will say, “Oh, look what they said.” But it’s not going to have the same effect as the leader of the party and the President of the United States saying the election is stolen, you need to be strong because they’re not going to be strong, go tell them. I think that matters sometimes.
Zach: Yeah, huge. I think it gets to being careful with where we direct our anger too because, to me, my criticism is directed at the people I believe are directly responsible. My anger and criticism is much less directed at the voters, for example, because I think voters can be influenced. When the President says something, they’re going to be influenced, right? It’s understandable in many ways how people come to believe things we strongly disagree with you even if we think they’re wrong. So I think it points to thinking about where we direct our anger and our criticism, because acting as if a Trump voter who believes the election is rigged is an evil person who wants to destroy America is just as unhelpful as a conservative acting as if liberals are trying to destroy America. It lends itself to this large scale us-versus-them we’re-at-war feelings, when we should really just be focusing on these people that we can point to as being directly responsible. I just think it’s helpful to think in those terms.
Thomas: Yeah. I think one thing that’s important to point out– there’s two things I always think as somebody who’s spent a lot of times studying politics outside the US is compared to many other countries, we have this weird combination as in we have very strong partisan polarisation so people feel very attached, they’re increasingly less likely to vote across the aisle and all sorts of issues. But we also have comparatively weak parties. Parties in many other countries, they have internal elections, they’re able to ferret out people who maybe aren’t in the best interest of joining their party. So somebody like Donald Trump never would have been allowed to run in Germany besides for his views, or in Israel besides for their views, but because he wasn’t even really a member of the party. So he never would have been allowed to be in that same position. And so I think that’s one of the criticisms of the US system that we have or at least the party system we now have is that there’s a lot of criticisms you can make about the smoke-filled backroom deals that used to go on in party conventions and other things.
But there’s a reason party leaders… Parties are not democracies, right? That’s the other thing that people tend to conflate. Political parties don’t… In many cases, the most effective political parties are not purely democratic. They are ways to basically funnel and sift through candidates who would be good electoral candidates and also protect the party brand. And I think if we had stronger parties, we never would have seen Donald Trump being able to run. The other thing too, is in most other countries he wouldn’t be able to run again right after what happened on January 6th.
Zach: And I was reading, you know, there’s lots of how our governmental system lends itself to more conflict. I was reading Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, and it’s really good description of the criticism of how we can have a President and the Congress at odds and it lends itself to both sides not having an incentive to compromise because by helping– say you compromise and negotiate and help the other side, you’re theoretically lending them a win. And it’s for the next election cycle which would help them. And there’s a reason why America has helped set up democracies in other countries. We don’t use the system we have for that reason. So it’s interesting examining the various factors that can lend themselves to polarization. And I think there’s a lot of things that lend themselves to polarization.
Thomas: Yeah. I think the point that you made, like one of the biggest points, is the fact that in the US if you get 50.001% of the vote, you get everything. Right? And the person who got 49.999, sorry. And what that does especially with polarization is that it just raises the stakes of every election. Whereas in a proportional representation system, it’s like, “Oh. Well, they get six seats and we get five.” That’s not essentially do or die. Right? It’s not that we went from having complete representation to having no representation, it’s they have slightly more than us. And that helps lower the temperature. The political scientist Juan Linz, this was always what he called the perils of presidentialism. He always had this famous quote that basically said, “Presidential systems like the United States are inherently unstable, with the exception being of the United States.” I think that has changed.
Zach: Yeah. Is he’s still alive? What’s he saying?
Thomas: No, he passed away recently.
Zach: Oh, I see. Yeah, I’m sure he would have been interested to see how things turned out. Have we not touched on something that you wanted to talk about either in your research or in things we’ve talked about?
Thomas: One thing that I would say too is when you’re talking about the Civil War stuff kind of circling back to why the US is not headed towards a civil war as one of my colleagues and friends, Dan Silverman, pointed out as like, the top predictors of a civil war are poverty, a weak state, and lootable resources. And we don’t have any of those, right? Especially the weak state, it’s hard to see the FBI and all of the different Homeland Security apparatuses that we have just basically saying, “Yeah, that’s great. We’re totally going to allow this to carry on.” What’s very clear is when the FBI and the full weight of the US state decides something is a threat, they have the capacity to take it down and I think pretty effectively. So whenever somebody tells me a story about how we’re headed towards a civil war, I’m like, “Explain to me that sort of causal logic.”
Zach: Well, and the lack of geographic separation seems pretty significant too. We’re so interspersed. I’ve thought through how that would look, it just seems… I can’t even imagine how it would play out. I think it’s much more logical to envision a limited, violent interaction in the Capitol or things like this, you know? But it’s just really hard to imagine how it would play out.
Thomas: Yeah. And just because we don’t have civil war doesn’t mean we don’t have contention and political violence. I also think it’s helpful to sort of zoom out a little bit in that COVID– fingers crossed– things are starting to open up more and this pandemic wave hopefully will recede and hopefully, that’s where we’re headed. But we’ve lost close to a million Americans, and this was a period of time that was a social pressure cooker. Like if you were to say, “Hey, I’m going to figure out a way to basically heighten as many social stressors as I can, it’s ‘Okay, have a massive pandemic. Close all the schools. Put a lot of people who are unemployed. Have a contentious election. Have some of the largest social protests associated with Black Lives Matter.” Right? In the country, it’s not surprising that this feels like a very heightened and stressful period because this is by definition, Émile Durkheim, the famous French sociologist talks about autonomy, right? Social stress, disorder. Yeah, exactly.
Zach: Well, totally. That’s what worried me so much when COVID started, I was like, “Oh, my…” Because I was always thinking well, we’re okay as long as something really bad doesn’t befall us. [laughter] [crosstalk] I know. Because during Trump’s term, I was always really pessimistic and I was like, “As long as nothing really bad hits the economy…” And then bam! Yeah, the gun has to go off. Yeah, it’s a bad script we’re in, or the simulation or whatever. But that also gets to some forgiveness in terms of like, you know I’ve seen so much arrogance about how could those people have done that during January 6th. But to me, we’re going through the COVID effects of both financial stress and existential stress, and I’ve seen that effect. Liberal people I know in terms of being more willing to go out and go into the streets and fight the cops in Portland, for example. So I think it points to having some empathy for the fact that we are in tough times no matter how much you disagree or think people are stupid or misled. We are in trying times in terms of COVID and how that affected us and in our polarization and growing animosity. I think it points to having a bit of empathy for the hardships that people can be going through both psychological and financial instantly.
Thomas: Yeah, I think that’s right. I also would say, though, is that when we’re thinking about what went on at the Capitol and the insurrection, and then we’re getting more out that it maybe was not just an insurrection but also potentially planned. Which is very concerning. I think the-
Zach: They were separating from the citizens and the leaders again. Yeah.
Thomas: Yeah. There were people there who were for sure like MAGA tourists who were hopped up and excited and trespassing. But there were also people there with bad intentions with zip ties. Oath Keepers with bear spray were there to– even though it was unlikely to succeed– were trying to basically overthrow the seat of power.
Zach: And don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing all of that stuff. I’m more advocating for the less violent and less malicious people and separating it from the leaders and the citizens kind of thing. But yeah, I think there is something too thinking about how I think of… I mean, the DC police were woefully unprepared. It was clearly obvious that they did not think that a conservative crowd would do what they did. And it’s interesting to think about how if they had just been slightly more prepared, none of that stuff would have ever happened. I don’t think. There’s kind of something in a different universe, they completely prevented any violence from getting out of hand and it would have been just a standard protest in some ways. But yeah, not to say that this is not serious, because I fully believe it’s serious, but there’s a number of factors that went on that day including incompetent preparation by the police, in my opinion.
Thomas: Yep. I think that’s completely right. That’s kind of shocking that they knew and were monitoring, and yet there wasn’t any-
Zach: Pretty sad. Because I fully expected it to be much worse than it was. I knew something was gonna happen that day and a lot of other people did, and it’s just mind-blowing that they would not prepare for that. Yeah. Anything else you want to throw in? I know you need to get going, so…
Thomas: Yeah. I would say my last thing is it’s not a hobby horse, but I do think one of the things that’s also interesting is to think about, “Okay, what are the future cleavages and lines of conflict that we’re likely to see in American politics and American society going forward?” And my feel in my view is that the Biden presidency in this period has actually kind of masked one of the big cleavages that I think is going to rear its head going forward in a pretty dramatic way, and that’s the generational divide between boomers and everyone else. I think the fact that Biden is older and you have Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership all there has kind of tamped that down.
But if you look at the political views of baby boomers versus Gen Z and millennials, especially as an elder millennial myself who’s coming into my prime voting years, I think that’s only going to be accentuated. Because if you look at the views on racial issues, on the economy, on the environment, it’s a huge one, right? Where it’s just diametrically opposed, and especially as boomers retire en masse like, “Well, why should we have a social safety net? I want my Social Security check.” I think it’s going to be a pretty dramatic axis of conflict. And it’s also a demographic one as well because younger generations, my generation, and Gen Z are more diverse. They are more non-white people. And so I think a lot of the Trumpy angst and if you look at voting demographics, it kind of bears this out that it is also this generational conflict that again has been sort of tamped down, but I think will increasingly rear its head. In fact, this is what I’ve argued to my baby boomer parents.
Zach: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting question because I like to consider what the future topics of polarization will be. For example, cryptocurrency is already starting to be pretty polarized. You had Ted Cruz the other day tweet something about how, of course liberals don’t like cryptocurrency because it’s unregulated. And it just points to there’s no limit to the kinds of things that could theoretically be drawn into these polarization dynamics. I mean, some of them are more predictable like yours, but there’s also these range of things that as Michael Macy the researcher has examined, there’s these things that don’t have previous ties to existing political party stances and they’re liable to go either way depending on the chaos of polarization. Yeah. Anyway, I know you gotta get going. Is there anything you want to say about how people can keep in touch with your work?
Thomas: Yes. You can follow me on Twitter, zeitzoff.com on my website. And yeah, it’s just great, Zack. This was awesome to have a conversation. Also, it’s funny your crypto point also made me think too that if you look at the Bitcoin crypto caucus in Congress, it’s strange bedfellows, right?
Zach: Yeah, for sure.
Thomas: So I think that’s also something. It’s that there were these weird– like the same thing with the letter that was signed by Paul Gosar and AOC telling Biden don’t commit US troops. Sometimes politics can make strange bedfellows, and living through political realignment can be always very interesting.
Zach: Okay, here’s the section where Thomas and I talk about the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the role of social media in that. Also, we just talked about social media dynamics in general. So maybe we could start with your research on social media, and how social media impacts conflicts and violence. I’m sure you have some thoughts on the Ukraine-Russia conflict and how social media may have changed things in that conflict. Maybe you care to talk about that a bit?
Thomas: Sure. First of all, it’s terrible what’s going on there. I mean, as alluded to when we were chatting previously, Ukraine is a country where I visited a lot. I have friends, I have colleagues there, and I’ve been staying in touch with them. Which is, again, something that before social media was very difficult. [chuckles] Before WhatsApp and other things. So first, it’s just terrible that there’s basically this war that, Putin’s war unprovoked against Ukraine. And I do think one of the interesting things, and one of the things that if you would ask political scientists and other folks, they would be shocked at basically how the misinformation machine of Russia has basically ceded social media to Ukraine. Yes, there are pockets always within the internet in the West where you can find obviously folks that are supporting Russia, you know? Whether it be [wipers] or people associated with Nick Fuentes and some of those folks. But for the most part, mainstream social media coverage is decidedly pro-Ukrainian. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that it’s very clear that this was a decision that Russia made to invade Ukraine without provocation, they tried to manufacture one. But even more so right, people like a David-Goliath story, and then Ukraine’s unique president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a background as an actor. It’s kind of a story that Tom Hanks starred in a movie or TV show about him becoming president of the US called The American President, and starts a political party called The American President then actually wins office. And then three years later, he is caught in a war. I mean, you would say that’s a farce, that’s ridiculous. And that’s what’s actually happening in Ukraine and so that makes it a very compelling story. You know, Zelenskyy was a comedian, showman kind of, and his leadership has surprised a lot of folks. I think that also plays into it.
Zach: Well, charisma.
Thomas: Yeah, for sure. I think social media has played a big part but I think it has been way more lopsided towards Ukraine in rallying folks.
Zach: Yeah, I’m curious about that because the one thing that strikes me there is you would expect Russia with all of their history of being pretty skilled or at least very focused on disinformation and manipulation, you would think all the things that have happened would be foreseeable to, you know, Putin’s supposed to be smart and good at manipulation and things like that. So I’m kind of curious why do you think Putin wouldn’t have foreseen the things that are happening now as happening?
Thomas: Yeah, one of my colleagues had this great thread like, “How has the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine changed… What have you updated after the invasion?” And I think one of them, I remember talking to another colleague who said that Putin is much more ideological than the West. I think many people realize, right? And I think that’s kind of been revealed that he’s way more ideological in making these choices. I also think the other thing too, as we talked about, is the Russian disinformation issue. And I’m more of a skeptic in terms of I think a lot of people it’s very easy to blame, you know? Conclude that social media did it. Social media murdered American democracy or something like that. Which I think besides being hyperbolic, it’s also incorrect. I think the reason why sometimes Russian misinformation campaigns were effective is because they were essentially laundered through opinion leaders, particularly in the Republican Party. With the exception of a few corners and maybe like Tucker Carlson, for the most part most Republicans are like they can have whiplash that they voted against Trump for basically doing a shakedown on Volodymyr Zelenskyy in October of 2020 but then… Sorry, October 2019. But what’s interesting is now they’re very much pro-Ukrainian. So I think there’s also not that fertile conduit for Putin to push and launder Russian misinformation. So it looks very clunky.
Zach: Anything you want to say about your past research into social media and how it affects conflicts and how you see that playing out now?
Thomas: I think there is a tendency to view social media as this great persuasion machine. And I actually think persuasion is really hard. I think what social media can do… And again, most people aren’t consuming information on Ukraine. Most average Americans they’re seeing maybe a few things, but instead, they’re watching TikToks or they’re thinking about Dancing With The Stars or other sorts of pop culture things. But for elites who pay attention a lot, this has been a way for them to get a window into the conflict, and particularly a pro-Ukrainian window into the conflict. And the Ukrainians have done a very good job of this and I think a lot of people are surprised at the swiftness of sanctions towards Russia, and also towards European Union support for Ukraine. Whether it be weapons or other kinds of financial guarantees. That’s a big deal and I think that’s another thing that people wouldn’t have guessed ex ante. And I think part of that again is for people to very much see different European capitals getting this very pro-Ukrainian anti-Russian viewpoint. It also doesn’t help that Ukraine is a much weaker military country that Putin clearly invaded and tried to engineer through ridiculous provocations.
Zach: Yeah, that gets into something I was thinking about recently was the exaggerated views people have about the influence of social media or maybe media in general. I interviewed Dave Karp, a political scientist about this and we talked about the exaggerated views that for example Cambridge Analytica had a big role, and the well-known fact that political ads in general just don’t do that much compared to other factors. You can see social media on the one hand as it’s influential. It can be persuasive but on the other hand, the huge amount of media and content leads to some burnout with too much content and desensitization with so much content. And I think those kinds of things can balance each other out. You know, it’s like you see so many things and you’re like, “Well, is that really real? Is that really real?”
So it’s a lot more complex than people think, and that kind of gets into a good tie-in maybe when we talk about the effects of social media. Some people act as if it’s some separate sphere, like it’s separate from other media, like it’s separate from cable news. But all these things can be seen to be just an acceleration of being bombarded with different views and different ideas. Like, the cable news channels in the internet age or the modern age amplified our bombardment with all of these things, and then social media is just adding another layer on top of that and making it more interactive, which maybe engages our emotions more. But I’m curious if you see these things as being a lot more complicated than is often talked about.
Thomas: Yeah, you’re gonna get the academic version of me that says, “Yes, it’s more complicated.” [laughs] But I think it’s complicated, and it’s maybe helpful and I think you’ve teed it up nicely to think about some of these things of how it’s more complicated. So I think one of the things that people mistake is they mistake clicks and engagement for persuasion. I can get you to click on something, right? That’s very easy. I show you something super provocative like, you know, “10 things about Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s secret relationship. Number nine is going to blow your mind!” I probably if I had some really nice graphic, I can get you to click on that. Am I going to persuade you to vote against Joe Biden or Barack Obama? Probably not. So that’s one of the things. The other thing, too, is that when we’re thinking about these strategies for what is social media doing…
So the kind of conventional wisdom like Russia hacked our democracy, or social media is killing our democracy, or Facebook is engineering people to be, you know, is engineering people to be really unhappy, I think that’s way overblown. That’s the persuasion story. I think the understudied part of this is the coordination story. So it’s not that social media is changing people’s minds, but maybe what social media is doing. Already people for instance in the Ukraine case, the Russia-Ukraine war, people who are already sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause are becoming more aware of it, and they want to do something. So I think instead of persuasion, you’re maybe getting an activation effect. And that’s a different story, but I think it’s also… I think it’s an important one.
Zach: Yeah, it’s kind of this magnification effect. It’s focusing everyone’s attention on one thing, which is a relatively new phenomenon, you know? But it blends into exactly what cable news does, it’s just on maybe a broader scale. The ability to focus a large population’s attention on one thing is a relatively new phenomenon and it can lead to exaggerations or overcorrections and overreactions, but it’s a continuation of things that have already been happening in other media.
Thomas: But the one point where I would push back… So I totally agree that you can’t separate what happened on Twitter from the fact that tweets also get blasted across Fox News and CNN, right? Like Trump when he was president, he was not tweeting just into Twitter, they would get covered– his tweets and other things. And so that was part of that ecosystem. But I also think the other thing too that we forget is that one of my good friends and colleagues, Michael Bang Petersen, he’s a professor at Aarhus in Denmark. He had this really nice thread on Twitter about social media– he’s very meta– about his testimony that he gave in front of the Danish Parliament. To summarise what he was saying is that social media is basically a place of very intense polarisation where it’s kind of like the angriest corners of politics.
Zach: A little note here. Previously, I interviewed Kevin Arceneaux who worked with Michael Bang Peterson on research into the so-called need for chaos views. The need for chaos views are antisocial and burn-it-all-down views that a surprisingly large number of people seem to have these days, at least according to that research. Kevin and I talked about what the causes for those views might be, and how social media might give people with those views more power. Back to the interview.
Thomas: It reflects offline cleavages, but I think the additional addendum to that is most people don’t care about politics. Most people care more about sports, they care more about other things, they have a very surface level of understanding. So the people that care very intensely about politics and are following it on social media, those are people who are voting in primaries. I think the turnout for Democrats in the primary was 6% and for Republicans it was 11% in Texas. That tells us something. That tells us again that again we are getting a very skewed view of the world; that social media reflects things that are important, but it’s not a pulse of the nation, so to speak.
Zach: Right. And then the worrying nature of polarization is like people who previously were not that interested in politics are increasingly drawn into these conflicts because it starts to feel like not just a political thing but a cultural thing or even a war thing. So it becomes bigger than politics in a way for many people, and it starts to take on that form.
Thomas: Yeah, I think your point is right. I think there have been polls that have been done about people who don’t want to talk about politics at Thanksgiving, and how that number has increased across time linearly. So I do think one of the dangers when you pointed out about polarization is when people’s party or who they voted for is not simply just a “This is who I voted for,” but it also is a signal of “This is the kind of car or truck I drive. This is the kind of sports I watch. I’m not a vegetarian or a latte-sipping liberal, right? I eat meat.”
Zach: Yeah, just how much I hate the other. Yeah.
Thomas: Yeah, I think that’s the part where that’s concerning in some ways. It’s when it kind of tips over and- [crosstalk]
Zach: – more emotional.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. That was an interview with political scientist, Thomas Zeitzoff.