Social media is often criticized for creating echo chambers when it comes to our news consumption and politics, and a new study shows just how deep a partisan divide social media has created.
A Pew Research Center analysis of Facebook posts on 25 popular pages found coverage of President Joe Biden’s early days in office depended largely on the partisan affiliation of the pages.
Pew found that on self-identified conservatives pages, posts about Biden were 67% negative, 32% neutral and 1% positive. On self-identified liberal pages, posts were 1% negative, 52% neutral and 47% positive.
The study also found that the issues these Facebook pages emphasized were different: 46% of the posts on liberal pages were about the economy, while 32% of posts on conservative pages were about immigration.
The analysis covered March 8-14, 2021, a week in which Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief bill. A total of 5,458 Facebook posts from 25 of the most-engaged public pages were reviewed by human coders who determined whether their assessments about the Biden administration were positive, neutral or negative.
“These differences in assessments follow the same pattern found in the broader news media study and are another reminder of the deeply polarized information environment in the country,” Pew wrote.
And it explains why it can sometimes feel like we’re talking past each other when we’re talking politics. We’re experiencing politics in completely different universes.
“It’s not surprising,” said Jieun Shin, assistant professor in the department of telecommunication at University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, but it’s also not as bad as it seems.
“Media consumption on social media, it’s not as divided as we might believe,” she said.
In a 2020 study, Shin found that although Twitter users do tend to follow like-minded accounts, there was actually a significant amount of media consumption overlap between conservatives and liberals.
How to make social media less partisan
Partisan news media in the U.S. dates back to the colonial era. In the 1780s, Americans got their news from partisan and party-backed newspapers. Today, the most-engaged news on Facebook is driven by a whole new cast of political players.
The top 25 most-engaged pages Pew studied was determined by data from the Facebook-owned social listening company CrowdTangle and included hyperpartisan nonprofits and new media startups with clear political viewpoints. There were also a number of personalities, including the pages of former President Barack Obama, Donald Trump Jr., Ben Shapiro and Glenn Beck. Pew removed news outlets that appeared in an earlier study of TV, radio and online news, as well as pages based outside of the U.S.
News consumption on social media matters because it is one of Americans’ top news sources. In 2020, 53% of U.S. adults “often” or “sometimes” got their news from social media, according to Pew. And although Americans are more likely to keep up with current events on news websites, apps or search engines, social media is the top news source for young people.
Closing the partisan gap on social media could be difficult because users often create their own echo chambers themselves. Researchers have found that since we’re more likely to engage online with like-minded friends and click news stories that reinforce our beliefs, social media algorithms feed us more of what we want. One MIT study found that having in-common political views makes Twitter users three times more likely to follow back.
And fostering understanding won’t be as easy as simply showing people news that challenges their worldview.
“A few years ago, people believed if we make people exposed to the other side of the opinion, breaking their echo chamber, they will become more moderate, but this wasn’t true,” said Shin. “Actually, when you are forced to encounter the other side of the story, it may backfire.”
Shin said social networks can continue to add “friction” to their platforms, encouraging users to think before they post, like when Twitter added a prompt suggesting people who hadn’t read stories they were about to retweet to actually read them.
She also said algorithms could emphasize “high-quality” news, like promoting professionally reported stories over low-grade partisan posts or hot takes.
“We are moving onto the next level, which is developing an algorithm that distinguishes good-quality versus low, junk-quality news,” she said.
Another possible fix is to change the social media experience from “centralized” networks organized around a relatively small number of big accounts or “influencers,” to something more egalitarian, where influence is more evenly distributed. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 found that it was possible for subjects to moderate their viewpoints on issues like immigration, gun control and unemployment when talking to people who shared their politics.
The solution wasn’t to eliminate echo chambers, but “to be intentional about the social networks in those echo chambers,” wrote Damon Centola, one of the study’s co-authors. “The more equity in people’s social networks, the less biased and more informed groups will become — even when those groups start off with highly partisan opinions.”