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It has been repeated so many times by now by just about everyone, but America is a divided nation right now. And now that political divisiveness and partisan fervor is starting to change the way people think about social media. According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, social media is not bringing us closer together, it’s actually pushing us further apart.
Survey questions from Pew Research Center on social media and politics
For example, Pew Research Center asked survey participants how they felt about political content on social media. Was it helping them have a more constructive debate about the important political issues, or was it was just hardening their positions and polarizing them even more? The numbers speak for themselves. 59 percent of respondents said they found the political content “stressful and frustrating” and only 35 percent said they found the content “interesting and informative.”
And, wait, it gets worse. Pew Research Center also asked survey participants if all the political content out there was helping them find common ground with people they are following on social media. Again, the answer here wasn’t surprising if you’ve been paying attention to the news cycle for the past 12 months. A staggering 64 percent of people said they felt they now had “less in common politically than they thought” after seeing what the other side had to say. And only 29 percent said that they had “more in common politically.” In short, the more I learn about you, the less I will like you. Yikes!
You can immediately see why social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are feeling the heat these days. It’s bad enough being hauled in front of Congress and being blamed for throwing the presidential election to the Russians. It’s humiliating to be blamed by just about everyone for the demise of mainstream media and the rise of fake news. It’s gotten so bad for the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that a majority of Clinton supporters blame social media for giving us Donald Trump, while a majority of Trump supporters blame social media for whipping up Russia conspiracy delusions and blocking the Trump agenda.
Changing the rules of the road for social media
It’s no surprise, then, that the big social media giants are furiously backpedaling as fast as they can, trying to clean up social media and make it safe again. Facebook is clamping down on fake news in its algorithm, Twitter is getting rid of bots, and YouTube is simply shutting down some content providers that might be pumping out objectionable and divisive videos.
That basically squares up with another of the Pew Research Center’s key findings – that 40 percent of people would say things on social media that they wouldn’t say elsewhere. According to survey participants, language and behavior on social media is “angrier, less respectful and less civil” than if two people were having a real conversation face-to-face. Make a “wrong” statement on social media these days, and you can expect some heavy trolling from the Hard Left or the Alt Right.
Clearly, something has to change. As Pew Research Center pointed out, the contamination of social media with polarizing political content is a bipartisan phenomenon, so it will require more than just chastising the Left or punishing the Right.
The only question, of course, is whether the system can be fixed simply by tweaking an algorithm or two. Technology may not be the problem here, folks, people might be the problem. You can ban certain videos on YouTube, but you can’t ban people from coming up with some truly bizarre, half-baked conspiracy theories to support their view of the world.
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