By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
About seven in every ten adult Americans use Facebook, and the people who use Facebook tend to use it every day. Surprisingly, a lot of people, about 43% to be precise, say they get news from this platform, even if unintentionally. Curiously, Facebook has some features that are unique which makes it a particularly interesting place to think about politics.
About three-quarters of users log in to Facebook at least once per day, usually from a mobile device such as a smartphone. A recent study found that particular features of Facebook, combined with norms about how many people tend to use the platform, exacerbate partisan polarization.
There are three features of the way the Facebook newsfeed works that make it an especially ripe environment to stoke negative partisanship—that feeling of animosity that people develop for those who are outside of their political in-group.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Facebook Emphasizes Expression
When people post to Facebook, they are typically expressing some personal experience, feeling, or opinion. The things that people say on Facebook are directly associated with individuals who are identified by a self-selected photograph or avatar and their name.
There is no ambiguity about who says what. To the extent that Facebook users tend to only send and accept friend requests from people they know in real life in some way, this norm reduces the likelihood that posts may be from ambiguous users. People often post personal items, like photos of their kids or cats, along with cute stories about their travels or day-to-day happenings.
Every post has the option for viewers to leave reactions or comments. Comments can be replied to, and discussions can occur, right there in the news feed. These discussions are not private but can become entertainment all on their own.
It may or may not also be the case that participants in a discussion are familiar with one another. These discussions can occur between co-workers, friends, or family, or they can occur between total strangers. But the key here is that expression is the basis for interactions between people.
Learn more about why polarization tends to self-perpetuate.
The Facebook Newsfeed
People share articles or stories from other media sources on Facebook. They may use them to stoke outrage or evoke a particular emotional reaction, either positive or negative. But the news is mixed in there with all the other stuff.
In the end, what people wind up with is a mix of personal expression, discussion, and news that triggers people’s emotions. When someone is scrolling through their newsfeed and has that “Aww, how sweet” reaction from their cousin’s latest photos of her new puppy, and then in the next heartbeat they have an article about something negative the Trump administration did.
Understandably, the likelihood that they’ll react to the political news in an emotional way is increased because their emotions were already piqued by the puppy photos.
A Revolutionary Way to Engage
Moreover, as someone engages with the items in this news feed, it helps them to identify people who are strongly aligned with their worldview, as well as those who are not.
Add to this the fact that people who are interacting with others impersonally, through a screen, as well as the users themselves may engage in a more open expression on Facebook, simply because it’s less socially acceptable to insult someone straight to their face.
So, Facebook is a revolutionary way for people to engage, communicate, and be in touch with others who they might not otherwise be connected to.
Emotional Reaction to Politics
At the same time, however, the way the newsfeed works heightens the likelihood that someone may react to politics in an emotional way, and quickly categorize it—or the person who posted it—as either part of their in-group, or not. This research on Facebook suggests that the platform may exacerbate political polarization, even if it doesn’t cause it.
On the other hand, there’s Twitter. A fair amount of activity on Twitter is generated by bots, including as many as two-thirds of the links shared there. It’s relatively easy to operate a Twitter handle from a position of anonymity. However, studies have shown that because Twitter tends to be a more free-for-all space, users may be more likely to gain exposure to countervailing viewpoints on Twitter than on Facebook.
Fewer people use Twitter, compared to other social media platforms, and those who use Twitter for political expression tend to be highly engaged in politics. In other words, they tend to be more extremist.
Learn more about individual opinion and political identity.
In the end, social media is a mixed bag, introducing positive and negative elements in politics. It both enriches the environment and facilitates the spread of information, yet has features that contribute to polarization and the spread of false information.
If any of this is troubling, just remember that social media is just the latest technology on which media is broadcast. It is both part of the problem, and perhaps part of the solution, until something else comes along.
Common Questions about Facebook and Political Polarization
Facebook offers a revolutionary way to communicate as it helps people identify others who are strongly aligned with their worldview. People interact with others impersonally, through a screen, and users engage in a more open expression.
The Facebook newsfeed heightens the likelihood that someone may react to politics in an emotional way, and quickly categorize it—or the person who posted it—as either part of their in-group, or not. This research on Facebook suggests that the platform may exacerbate political polarization, even if it doesn’t cause it.
Studies have shown that because Twitter tends to be a more free-for-all space, users may be more likely to gain exposure to countervailing viewpoints on Twitter than on Facebook.