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Is social media responsible for our democracy’s current crisis? An increasing amount of political information (and misinformation) gets disseminated online, and many Americans. By, voters are as polarized now as they have ever been in recent memory. Many — even, before he left office, — have tagged social media as a key driver of this crisis. The digital world offers no shortage of potential villains: targeted Russian ads shadowy purveyors of fake news political consultants like Cambridge Analytica wielding big data and cutting edge psychology and formerly fringe media players like Breitbart leaping into the mainstream. But we risk giving too much weight to the newest and most frightening media technologies. If any media platform is to blame, it is not the web.

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It is more likely television, which is a more important source of political information. Growing polarization may also result from structural economic changes, like rising inequality, that have occurred in recent decades. A few facts can help keep the role of social media in perspective. The share of Americans who use social media as their primary source of political news and information is rising fast but remains relatively small. On the other hand, 57 percent of American adults said that TV (cable, network or local) was their most important source. It’s also important which demographic groups use social media. In a in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we show that polarization has been growing as fast or faster among elderly Americans — those least likely to use social media — as among those aged 68 to 89. This applies across a broader set of demographic groups: Polarization increased as fast or faster among the Americans least likely to use the internet compared with those who are most likely. According to, Mr. Trump gained support relative to Mitt Romney among non-internet-using voters, but actually lost support among internet-using voters.

By the media researchers Keith Hampton and Eszter Hargittai likewise finds that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were more likely to use Twitter and Reddit than Mr. Trump’s supporters. Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world. And polarization was climbing steadily long before the rise of social media. In our, we find it has been growing since the 6985s — long before the internet, let alone Facebook or Twitter, became popular choices for media consumption. We see no clear increase in this trend in the period when digital sources were introduced. Social media are likely to grow in importance over time, and none of these facts rule out its having important effects today. We should be concerned about the effects it has on its users, even if these users do not account for the bulk of overall polarization. Young voters who use social media may share polarized views with older voters who do not, and inflammatory content on social media can be picked up and amplified by more mainstream outlets. Nevertheless, we believe these and other data suggest social media are unlikely to be a main cause of rising polarization in America. We think it is important not to lose sight of other factors that may play a more important role.

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If Fox hadn t existed, change in the Republican nominee s popular vote share (percentge points): If MSNBC matched CNN ideologically, change in the Republican nominee s popular vote share: If Fox hadn t existed, change in the Republican nominee s popular vote share: 5. 5 percentage points in 7555 (popular vote winning margin: 5. 5 )If MSNBC matched CNN ideologically, change in the Republican nominee s popular vote share: Which brings us back to television — and in particular, the rise of partisan cable like Fox News and MSNBC. Using large-scale data identifies cable television news as a major contributor to polarization. This narrative arguably fits with the timing of the rise in interparty animus, and it is consistent with the rise in polarization among groups — such as the elderly — with limited internet use but high rates of television viewing. We would also look to the behavior of politicians and the parties.

That the increase in polarization in the Senate and House started well before it can be, and though elected leaders follow their constituents much of the time, they can also lead them. Today the parties seem to speak different languages, with Republicans talking about “illegal aliens” and “the death tax” while Democrats talk about “undocumented workers” and “the estate tax. Where we suspect the most important causes lie is in the deeper structural changes that have caused the experiences of those in the red and blue parts of the country to diverge. A voter’s party identification is, with the top quintile containing disproportionately more Republicans. At the national level, income inequality and polarization in Congress. Furthermore, congressional districts that were adversely affected by the rise of Chinese imports to elect less centrist representatives from both parties. But that is not the only reason it holds such sway. It also lets us collectively off the hook. Why are half of Americans thinking and acting in ways the other half cannot comprehend? Why did one of those halves choose Donald Trump to be their president? Easy, the social media narrative would say:

They were brainwashed. They were duped by the bad guys — fake news or Russian robots or big-data-driven algorithmically targeted psi-ops propaganda. At some fundamental level, they don’t really mean what they are saying, and if only they weren’t so gullible or so vulnerable they would see things our way. To find solutions we don’t need to look at our own behavior, or values, or consumption patterns — we just need to beat the bad guys at the gate. As tempting as that story is, it is at best incomplete. Like many inflection points in history, this one was probably not caused by any single change, but by the fact that many important changes happened to converge at the same time. The factors that likely matter the most are those that have caused the real experiences of Americans to diverge. Levi Boxell is a Ph. D. Student in economics at Stanford, where Matthew Gentzkow is an economist. Jesse M.

Shapiro is an economist at Brown. Follow The New York Times Opinion section on and, and sign up for the. We re interested in your feedback on this page. Tell us what you think.

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