Social Media Isn’t What’s Polarizing Our Politics

As the world changes and technology advances, it’s probably reasonable to think that some of these developments are changing our political landscape. You don’t have to travel far on the internet to find some hot takes about how social media is driving the increasing partisanship and political fighting in the United States, and there are also hot takes just a few years younger which blame the rise of partisan cable news channels like Fox or MSNBC. After all, it is true that politics now is more divisive and partisan than in years past. But are social media, or cable news to blame? Probably not.

A study recently released through the National Bureau of Economic Research puts the conventional wisdom of blaming the latest trend among youth for today’s problems (that is, the idea that social media is making us more polarized politically) to the test. The study found that conventional wisdom to be wrong.

The study was done by comparing digital-savvy voters to non-digital savvy voters on nine different tests of political polarization from 1996 to 2012. They found, ironically, that polarization actually increased the most among users who were the least digital-savvy.

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As for the cable news idea, there was a book written on this topic in 2013, Changing Minds or Changing Channels. The authors, Kevin Archenaux and Martin Johnson, studied the effects of partisan media, specifically how the channels exist in a hyper-choice environment, and how that impacts the viewers. They found that the factor of choice severely limits the effects of partisan media on viewers. Because only so many people typically seek out news programs, and people are unlikely to encounter partisan news unless they seek it, the macro-effects of partisan news of polarizing the American electorate are likely to be marginal, if they exist at all.

It would appear as though the old cliché of blaming whatever type of media for today’s problems doesn’t hold much water. Maybe we ought to give media a break.

-Dallas Schwab, @schwabsyy

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UNT Eagle Strategies

Class members of the social media class in the Mayborn School of Journalism