You can read part one here: Repukes and Democraps
Ingenito’s study was conducted in 2008 and a lot has changed in the world of Facebook since that point. In particular, the edgerank algorithm was not as much in play as it is now. Additionally due to changes in format, political “pages” now seem more popular than groups. Current researchers would therefore be wise to investigate numbers and sharing behaviours of “page followers” in addition to “group members”. Many pages seem to primarily promote visual “memes”, such as the images I have included in this paper. Memes are good for provoking a reaction, but they often lack substantive arguments and so leave something to be desired when it comes to encouraging thoughtful deliberation. Two studies of Twitter users (Conover et al. and Yardi and Boyd) were conducted recently that are better evaluations of the type of interactions meme sharing creates than Ingenito’s research. Twitter users are limited to one hundred and forty characters per tweet, so ideas and opinions must be abbreviated, making substantive debate challenging. The researchers observed users engaging others of differing viewpoints by “mentioning” (i.e. replying) to them, but only “retweeting” (i.e. sharing with their own followers) material that supported their viewpoints. These findings show that while deliberation is occurring, it is not of the sort that is likely to alter opinions or reduce polarization. Instead polarization is increasing because people are constantly having their viewpoints corroborated; consequently increasing their confidence in and the extremity of their views.
But if deliberation is the goal of a deliberative democracy, then how can any engagement in the public arena be hurtful to the political environment? Sunstein answers this question by explaining the importance of group identity as a factor in deliberation (Republic.com 67-68); this is also where intergroup conflict research begins to be relevant. If group members identify strongly with each other as a group and see people with opposing views as being outsiders, they will be much more likely to be persuaded by other group members’ arguments and to discount the arguments of outsiders regardless of the actual strengths or weaknesses of the arguments in question. Thus people who identify as Republicans will be unlikely to allow the arguments of someone they perceive as a Democrat to persuade them to change their views and vice versa. In this way deliberation can occur frequently without reducing polarization in the political environment and often increasing it instead (Sunstein Republic.com 68). Furthermore, the people who most need exposure to more varied viewpoints are often the ones that have become most entrenched in the group identity and are therefore the most impervious to opposing viewpoints.
It is very easy to observe this phenomenon on almost any Facebook page or in the comments section of news articles. Blogs also have been observed to link to like minded blogs much more often than blogs with dissenting views. If they do feature articles with dissenting views it is usually to hold them up as an example of how awful, terrifying or damaging the other side’s point of view is. (Sunstein Republic.com 148)
The rhetoric on how liberalism or conservatism is destroying America is as ubiquitous as accusations that “the mainstream media has a liberal bias” or that “right wing media creates an alternate reality bubble devoid of facts”. For examples of these liberal bias/right wing bubble claims, see the following video clips:
http://video.foxnews.com/v/1809206971001/editor-calls-out-ny-times-for-liberal-bias/ and http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26315908/ns/msnbc_tv-rachel_maddow_show#40018314 (particularly from minutes 4:02 – 9:47).
While group polarization can be used to explain how and why media has contributed to the division of the American people, intergroup conflict research is useful in explaining why this polarization continues in the face of the potentially unifying force that is the internet in general and social media in particular. Why has the US, instead of a single movement to overthrow or reform the government (e.g. Egypt and Iceland), spawned two movements of opposing ideological roots: the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement? The problem is that the two partisan factions are so convinced of their differences that they are unable to see any common ground that might unify them and are therefore locked in battle against each other while also battling a common foe, government corruption.
According to numerous studies (Asch; Ichheiser; Bar-Tal and Geva; and Fisher and Ury as cited in Robinson et al.) people are “naive realists” who perceive themselves to be entirely objective while believing their opponents to be “stubborn, illogical, or distorted by some combination of ideological bias and self-interest” (Robinson et al. 404). Partisan factions are very often well aware that the opposing group construes the world differently, according to their experiences/knowledge and that this view “tend(s) to be congruent with the groups’ differing ideological position” (405). However they will dispute the validity of this alternate world view, assuming “that other people’s construals of evidence, in contrast to their own, are the consequence rather than the cause of pre-existing values and biases” (405). These assumptions lead opposing groups to: “see the other side as extreme, unreasonable, and unreachable”; “underestimate the possibility of finding common ground that could provide the basis for conciliation and constructive action”; “be reluctant to enter into the type of frank dialogue that could reveal such commonalities in interest or beliefs”; “misattribute the other side’s words and deeds”; and “blame the other side exclusively for shared problems” (405).
These tendencies seem frighteningly typical of the rhetoric one can observe repeatedly in interactions across social media and hear disseminated by presenters in narrowcast media. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the self-perpetuating nature of the problem; the more people hear certain viewpoints the more entrenched they become in that viewpoint and fused with others who hold common views. The degree of fusion determines how much weight they give to corroborating viewpoints and how strong their adversarial attitude will become. Sadly it is in the best interest of biased media to promote this adversarial stance because it cements their audience. It is hardly surprising, then, that the statistics do back up Kennedy’s assertion that America is more divided than at any time since the civil war. If we follow the rhetoric through to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to anticipate another civil war actually occurring given the right triggering events. After the most recent election, residents of all 50 states used the official Whitehouse online petition tool to express their desire to see their home states secede from the Union. Of course none of these petitions were taken very seriously (Linkins); however, they are yet another indicator of how deeply divided the US people have become. One wonders what, if anything can be done.
A potential answer might be found in social media if a significant number of people will choose to start utilizing it to increase respectful discourse and to fight the extreme and adversarial rhetoric. If these people have common goals which they cooperate to attain in a way that allows for intergroup friendships to develop, (Pettigrew) there is no reason at all that social media cannot be a forum through which conflict and polarization are reduced rather than increased. However it will take people from both sides of the divide making a conscious effort to participate in the kind of interaction which brings them together. Are there enough people wanting to see a reversal of the trend towards polarization and willing to begin a movement that effects change?
- Conover, M.D. et al. “Political Polarization on Twitter.” Indiana University. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 2011. PDF File. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Ingenito II, David. “Democracy in the 21st Century: Social Media and Politics – Global Village or Cyber-Balkans?” Thesis U. of Southern California, 2010. USC Digital Library. University of Southern California, 2012. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Kennedy Jr., Robert F. “RFK Jr. On Fracking.” HuffPost Live. TheHuffingtonPost.com. 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Linkins, Jason. “Residents in all 50 States File Petitions to Secede From United States.” HuffPost Politics. TheHuffingtonPost.com. 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Maddow, Rachel. “Echoing falsehoods still don’t ring true.” The Rachel Maddow Show on msnbc. NBCNews.com. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- O’Reilly, Bill. “Editor Calls out NY Times for Liberal Bias.” FoxNews.com. FOX News Network. 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Pettigrew, Thomas F. “Intergroup Contact Theory” Annual Review of Psychology. 49.1 (1998) 65-85. EBSCOhost. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Robinson, Robert J. et al. “Actual versus assumed differences in construal: ‘Naive realism’ in intergroup perception and conflict.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 68.3 (1995): 404-417. EBSCOhost. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Sunstein, Cass R. “The Law of Group Polarization.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 10.2 (2002): 175-95. Wiley Online Library. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.—. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.
- Yardi, Sarita and Danah Boyd. “Dynamic Debates: An Analysis of Group Polarization Over Time on Twitter.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. 30.5 (2010): 316-327. Sage Journals. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.