Most Americans admit they use social media at least once a day, but they also believe platforms like Facebook and Twitter are doing more to divide the nation than bring us together, according to research by NYU and the University of Cambridge.
Experts are now speaking out to allow a better understanding of where this division comes from, and what things unite us on social media platforms.
“The advent of social media has changed the information environment dramatically for individuals,” said Phillip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in cognitive science research.
“It’s not so much the internet, but rather that the internet is always on us,” said Samuel Jay, a professor of communication studies at MSU Denver. “I think it’s a compelling argument in this shift and how we access that and what it does to us as a society. It is insanely steep curve that has occurred over the last 25 years when it comes to technology and access to information – and what I think is so wild is how fast things change.”
This is the age of social media—where you go to update your life, stay connected with friends and family, and now, where a lot of Americans go to get their daily news and information.
“I think you can think of social media as you can think of any tool,” said Toby Hopp, a professor at The University of Colorado specializing in digital media research. “A hammer for instance: I can hang art on my wall, fix things that need to be fixed. But I can also swing that hammer just as wildly. I can put holes in my living room or hit myself in the head. That’s how I look at social media is that it’s a mix of good and bad.”
According to the Pew Research Center, about 53% of people said they get their news from social media.
Because we tend to be caught up daily on current events via social media or digitally, a lot of Americans think that this can be doing more to divide us than unite us. In fact, 64% percent of Americans believe that socal media platforms do more to divide us.
“We have taken to using information and feelings that use to be so specific to our private and personal lives, and we’ve really made the personal political now,” Jay said.
“One problem is that happens on both sides of the aisle,” Fernbach said. “So, people on both sides tend to have strong opinions on these issues and lose the nuance. And things aren’t black and white; sometimes they’re gray and we can lose that. Because we get into this habit of arguing from this position that we have.”
Social media services give users a platform to share their thoughts, especially political ones. Whether it’s climate change, COVID, or racial and social issues.
However, some of this divide according to experts is due to the access to information, but more so, misinformation.
Another reason for this division is that people tend to discuss their political views only with those who align with their ideology.
“When we’re arguing about these complicated issues, as individuals we actually don’t know that much about them,” Fernbach said. “We might feel that we understand them to a certain degree but they’re often complex and yet, everyone that you talk to online seems to have strong opinions on these complex issues. So, then the questions come up of why do people have such strong opinions, a lot of my research delves into that. When we’re part of a community, that has a particular position, just by virtue of participating in that community, we tend to feel like we have a better understanding of that issue better than we do.”
However, there are sparks of uniting over causes on social media, particularly when a tragedy happens.
“You see that social media allows to collectively grieve to collectively organize around a problem or a tragedy,” Hopp said. “Whatever character these tragedies take on, you see time and time again people want to be a positive voice around a problem. Social media does allow that, that’s not something we can say doesn’t matter because it does matter.”
To become more united, experts suggest limiting their time on social media, and read through information and formulate their own opinions based on facts that overrules misinformation.
“I think that we need to take a step back from that, and understand that social media isn’t really real life,” Hopp said. “The negative opinions that it invokes or perspectives that it pushes us towards having, it’s not healthy for society in general but for us as individuals.”