Questioning if social media plays a big role in political polarization, with Levi Boxell

A talk with Levi Boxell about his research into political polarization and the role social media plays in that. Boxell and colleagues did research showing that older Americans, who used the internet less than younger people, were more polarized and had more animosity towards the opposite political group than did younger people. While there could be less obvious, indirect processes at work, this seemed to show that the internet and social media were likely far from dominant factors in political polarization. Also, Boxell has done research comparing polarization change in different countries showing that because polarization isn’t happening consistently across many countries, the internet likely isn’t a primary factor.

We also discuss his research showing how there can be media bias in the choice of political leaders’ photos that news outlets choose, with negative bias leading to pictures with more negative emotion facial expressions and positive bias leading to choosing pictures with more positive emotion facial expressions.

Topics discussed:

  • What does Boxell think are the main factors behind polarization processes?
  • Does Boxell’s work rule out the internet and social media being primary factors in polarization? If the internet might still be a primary factor, what pathways might account for Boxell’s research showing what it has?
  • Why is it hard to reach conclusions about the internet and social media are affecting us?
  • What does polarization in some other countries look like? What countries are surprisingly unpolarized?