A Pew Research poll reveals that most Americans believe social media has a pernicious impact on politics and society. To those familiar with political discourse on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, this finding does not come as a surprise. But can there be a solution?
Most Americans Believe Social Media Has Negative Impact
According to the Pew Research Center, almost two-thirds of Americans (64%) believe that social media has a harmful effect on how things are going in the country. The study, which was conducted in July, found that only one in ten Americans think social media platforms have had a positive effect on the country. About a quarter stated that it has neither a positive nor negative effect.
When broken down by political party, the results seem predictable. Most on both sides of the political divide viewed social media as a negative influence on society. But only 53% of Democrats espoused this belief compared to 78% of Republicans who claimed that these platforms are damaging political discourse.
When it comes to the right, the results are more nuanced than from left-leaning individuals. Conservative Republicans are more likely to view social media as dangerous than moderate to liberal right-wingers.
What’s Wrong With Social Media?
The reasons for viewing social media as a negative aren’t very shocking. Respondents cited misinformation and an abundance of heated vitriol. They pointed out that these platforms encourage extreme partisanship, polarization, and echo chambers. Others referred to the apparent anti-conservative bias that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have displayed.
According to Pew:
“When asked to elaborate on the main reason why they think social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in this country today, roughly three-in-ten (28%) respondents who hold that view mention the spreading of misinformation and made-up news. Smaller shares reference examples of hate, harassment, conflict and extremism (16%) as a main reason, and 11% mention a perceived lack of critical thinking skills among many users – voicing concern about people who use these sites believing everything they see or read or being unsure about what to believe.”
Those who believed that social media is a positive force in American society rely on the fact that it allows more people to connect with one another and helps people to stay informed. These are also important elements in this equation — but the fact remains that, to most Americans, the bad outweighs the good.
It is correct that social media has been instrumental in creating echo chambers and playing on those who do not engage in critical thinking. But these factors are only contributors to the overall reason why platforms have had a destructive effect on the culture: the fact that discourse has become increasingly hateful and threatening.
Many blame the state of political discussions on President Trump, who isn’t exactly Mr. Rogers. But the truth is that this trend began long before he ran for office. With mainstream media figures on both sides promoting a more pugilistic brand of politics, more Americans came to see those with differing views as the enemy instead of people with whom they disagree.
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a readily available solution. Media networks are incentivized to push outrage like a drug dealer selling meth on the street corner. If this trend continues, it might take a catastrophe on the scale of 9/11 to finally bring us back together.
Read more from Jeff Charles.