America’s obsession with social media is undermining the democratic process

The circle of (social media) life.
The circle of (social media) life.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In an increasingly saturated online media landscape, the influence of social media may have outlived its usefulness. Voters today are embracing presidential candidates who appeal to their specific passions and ideals without attempting to consider, or even listen to, opposing views.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given data about the effect of political polarization and media habits from the Pew Research Center. The 2014 survey found that voters who consistently call themselves conservative or liberal only trust news sources that align with their ideological views.

“Our data shows that one of the things that has developed along side of the proliferation of news sources and social media platforms is that the political environment is also becoming more divided rather than more cohesive,” Amy Mitchell, Pew’s director of journalism research, tells Quartz.

Adding to this polarization the growing ability for voters to self-select their newsfeeds via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Some voters are finding themselves in an echo chamber where the only information they get about the presidential candidates reinforces their opinions.

“It’s what I would call the amen corner,” Sree Sreenivasan, former chief digital officer for Columbia University and the current chief digital officer for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells Quartz. “You read what you want to hear.”

Overall, 44% of US adults learned something about the presidential election from social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center study on how Americans are getting their information about the 2016 presidential campaign. One-third of those who named social media as their most helpful source (33%) share news and information about the election on social media sites. If you’re a millennial, this reliance on social media for news becomes even more profound. About 61% of millennials report getting political news from Facebook in a given week, a much larger percentage than any other news source for this group, according to a Pew Research Center analysis on Milliennials and political news.

“The more you can just get confirmation of your gut feeling on something or reassurances, the better you feel about it,” Ryan Teague Beckwith, senior editor at Time magazine’s Washington, DC, bureau and adjunct journalism professor at Georgetown University, tells Quartz.

While social media has created more pathways and opportunities to be exposed to different types of news and information, Mitchell says, there are also more opportunities to narrow what you read and see than ever before. “With the development of technology,” she says, “there is more choice put into the hands of the user and public.”

Looking at political news through the specific lenses of a few people you agree with is an easy way for consumers to sort through the explosion of news content, says Beckwith. However, if you’re not paying attention to whom and what you are following on social media, you can easily just fall into a sort of intellectual holding pattern, where you only read information that simply amplifies your opinions.

It’s not just young people who are falling into this trap. A few years ago, Beckwith looked at his Twitter stream and realized he was mostly following white men who shared his same perspective. “I made a deliberate effort to add diverse people and I can tell it’s exposing me to broader ideas than I would have been exposed to otherwise,” he tells Quartz.

Beckwith says his Facebook feed has actually exposed him to a wider range of political thought than might have been possible geographically (Beckwith is from Maryland.) But this, too, is in large part due to his decision to follow a diverse set of people who live in different states and whom he knows from different parts of his life—elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, and former coworkers.

Not everyone is as self-aware.

In fact, Beckwith says, plenty of articles being shared on Facebook right now are either satire (too often mistaken for news) or openly partisan content. The Borowitz Report is pure satire and one of the most partisan sections of The New Yorker. Yet it is among the site’s most shared content, according to Beckwith. “There is a lot more junk viral news and opinions that get circulated around by people who aren’t paying attention to how plausible the story is,” Beckwith says.

How much of this is just the natural extension of our ever-digital existences? Social media is an echo chamber in much the same way the office water cooler is an echo chamber, explains Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. News, he says, has always been an echo because, even with a traditional newspaper, readers can self-select which articles they choose to read.

Indeed, Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Communication, notes that a typical newspaper op-ed page allowed readers similar opportunities for self-selection. “It wasn’t necessarily that everyone would read everything and think about it and make up their own minds,” he tells Quartz. “More often, you would read the person you agreed with and ignore the person you didn’t agree with.”

The difference with Facebook, Buttry says, is you can choose how you engage on social media. Unlike with a traditional newspaper, on Facebook you can comment on posts. If you get annoyed with someone, you can block them from your feed. “You do get folks who insulated themselves in an echo chamber,” he says, “but you also have the opportunity to hear from people beyond your circle.”

And that, experts say, is ultimately value of social media—if people take advantage of it.

“Ideas what would have been outside the legitimate discussion have more pathways of getting into the debate because of social media,” Beckwith says.

For instance, traditional newspaper coverage on cleaning up a local river would typically include a news article and an editorial, Sreenivasan says. With social media, many more people take part in the discussion. In addition to the news story, he says, you can also hear from the non-profit fighting to save the river, the company accused of polluting it and the people who live near it, all without a filter.

“Social media is a tool,” says Beckwith. “It all depends on how we choose to use these technologies.”