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According to the latest survey data from Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans are “worn out” by political posts and discussion on social media. And for good reason – for most Americans checking their social media feeds throughout the day and night, it seems like there is no end to the highly partisan discussions involving Democrats and Republicans. It seems like social media is not helping people find any sort of common ground. Instead, it is only tearing people further apart, and that is both “stressful” and “frustrating” to a majority of Americans.
Pew Research Center survey data
Consider for a moment that the same Pew Research Center poll back in 2016 found that only 37 percent of Americans were “worn out” by political posts and discussion. Even as recently as 2019, the figure was only 46 percent. So in the past 12 months especially, it looks like things are getting worse, not better. Most news these days seems to be political in nature (or politicized later by both political parties), and it’s not even possible to watch a sporting event these days without being barraged by political messaging. An act as simple as wearing a mask is now filled with political symbolism.
Changes at the big social media platforms
Against this backdrop, it’s only natural to ask: Is there anything that the big social media platforms should be doing to combat this deluge of highly charged and polarized political discussion? You might argue that platforms like Facebook and YouTube are already taking steps – they are de-platforming people who are too radical and divisive, they are tweaking their algorithms to avoid showing certain types of content (e.g. hate speech), and they are experimenting with things like adding labels, descriptors and warnings to any content that might be misinformation or outright lies. In some cases – as with Twitter – they are banning all political advertising up to the November 2020 election, hoping to avoid any of the sorts of controversy that accompanied the hotly contested 2016 election.
But when it comes down to it, the big social media platforms are not going to do anything that will jeopardize their highly profitable business model. The basic function of this business model is simple: get as many users and views as possible, and then sell advertising to companies, organizations and individuals looking to reach huge audiences. In order to ramp up the users and views, platforms like Facebook are naturally biased in favor of any content that will get people clicking, viewing and commenting.
And guess what? Highly charged, divisive political content is perfect for that type of engagement. Add in the fact that the leader inside the White House right now is a non-stop source of memes, commentary, discussion and debate, and it’s easy to see why social media feeds are filling up with this type of political content. Clicks = advertising dollars.
Short-term thinking in Silicon Valley
In the short term, this reliance on divisive political content might be an effective business strategy. Even if a small percentage of people leaves or abandons Facebook, it’s not really going to impact the basic business model. Presumably, if Trump wins the election in November, we’ll have another four years of “stressful” and “frustrating” political discourse (to put it mildly), and if Trump loses the election, then it’s easy to see how die-hard Republicans and Trump supporters are going to absolutely take over social media and turn it into a non-stop source of discontentment and anger at the Democrat administration.
But what about in the long run? At some point, advertisers are going to start backing away from these social media platforms. If they view Facebook and Twitter as a toxic cesspool of lies, misinformation and disinformation, why would they possibly want to advertise there? If the average Facebook user is no longer a suburban mom and is instead a young millennial “peaceful protester” looking to burn down local businesses, does it even make sense to advertise on social media? In short, why would Target advertise to the same people who want to burn down local Target stores?
The post-election outlook
Unfortunately, the current situation on social media probably won’t change until companies like Facebook and Twitter start to feel an economic impact. As long as they are bringing in a lot of money from advertisers, and as long as the number of people migrating to new platforms is manageable, they aren’t going to make a lot of tweaks to their business model. Hopefully, after the 2020 election date passes, things will at least calm down for a short period of time to help “worn out” Americans get over their feelings of political burnout.