Political polarization divides people into two groups with completely opposing views. Examples are pro-life vs. pro-choice, liberal vs. conservative, and Democrats vs. Republicans.
2014 Pew Research pointed out many years ago that studies showed a strong move away from the center by both American political parties. This shift caused the center position to decrease to 39% in 2014, down from 49% in 1994.
In 2021 Pew Research, the center shrunk to 37%. Those in the contemporary center have little to no interest in politics. The center’s disappearance from the political conversation reinforces the feeling that political polarization is growing.
Republicans and Democrats agree on very little, except they share the belief of having almost nothing in common with the other party. Four out of five people from both parties say they fundamentally disagree with the other side about core American values. Political polarization creates affiliations of being either Red or Blue but nothing in-between.
Social Media Increases Political Polarization
Social media substantially increases the intensity of political polarization. The Brookings Institution research found that a relationship exists between social media platforms and extreme polarization that may erode democratic values and increase partisan violence.
The goal of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tik Tok and others, is to keep people using their systems as much as possible. This use allows them to monetize their users’ attention and track information to sell to advertisers. This process is engagement.
Engagement is the interaction and activity with social media content. Creating a powerful reaction in a viewer by sensationalizing political issues (including spreading misinformation) is far more engaging than a boring presentation of facts.
Addiction to the Release of Dopamine
People are obsessed with social media because of its constantly changing 24/7 modality, unpredictability, the tiny pieces of information (or misinformation) it offers, and the reward cues such as likes, shares, followers, etc. Those characteristics stimulate the release of a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) called dopamine, which is pleasurable.
Research into addictive behaviors suggests that dopamine triggered by social media use is so powerful it is harder to resist than the addiction to alcohol or cigarettes.
Social Media Algorithms, Media Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Confirmation Bias
The goal of any social media system is to attract new users and keep existing users engaged with the system. A social media algorithm is an AI-driven computer program that selects content choices based on user profiles to keep users coming back for more.
The system tracks what you do and how you engage with content and then presents similar content or its best guess of what content you might like to keep you as engaged as possible.
When you engage with certain content, like watching a specific news piece, you will see that type of content presented to you on your next use of the system. This phenomenon is a “media bubble.”
An “echo chamber” effect happens when you get more content that matches previous content. Confirmation bias occurs when a user looks for content that reinforces a previously-held opinion. All of this leads to increased political polarization shaped by social media use.
Overwhelming research shows that social media increases political polarization. Social media use allows the easy spread of misinformation and makes it difficult to tell what is legitimate. Social media use makes political polarization more intense.