W&M professor studies polarizing effects of social media

Jaime Settle is an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary.

She is co-director of the Social Science Research Methods Center; she founded and directs the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at the college. She is also the author of the path-breaking new book, “Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America.”

Settle has spent her professional career studying, researching and teaching about social media. Considering social media’s impact worldwide, I asked her whether she sees it as a blessing or a curse?

“In and of itself, social media technology is neither a blessing nor a curse,” she replied in a recent interview with the Gazette. “The net benefit of the technology depends entirely on how people choose to use it.”

She explained that there are many novel uses of social media to connect people and facilitate transparency in politics around the world. But social media can also be harnessed for pernicious outcomes, such as suppressing democracy.

In her book, Settle lists the many political outcomes from the advent of social media. She notes evidence indicates that Twitter users with ideologically diverse sets of personal connections are more likely to follow diverse, elite users, media and political figures. People who are least interested in politics encounter news on social media they otherwise would have missed. Young and minority Americans say social media is an effective tool for political advocacy, and they say their ability to connect with others may increase their political efficacy.

There are also many negative aspects to using social media. In her book, Settle shows that social media makes it easy to make biased judgments about people with whom we disagree.

“Social media may also reduce political activism by helping people take low cost actions, like singing petitions, a process called ‘slacktivism,’” Settle said. “Social media also facilitates the spread of fake news – news that is intentionally designed to be factually inaccurate. The 2016 election shows that the most popular fake news stories were circulated more frequently than legitimate news stories about the same topics. Authoritarian leaders are able to suppress social movements pushing for democracy by monitoring the social media.”

I asked Settle whether her research found a method or mechanism that would mitigate the consequences of political polarization brought about by the social media.

“One solution to the problem,” she said, “is to incentivize more disclosure and transparency of political attitudes. What if people instead of hiding their political views, indicate their political ideology. Ideally, this transparency would take much of the guesswork out of the process of inference.”

She continued: “Yes, your uncle’s friends seem to share his extreme views on immigration, but it turns out that they have a mix of views on other issues. They are not alike and are not extreme. They just happen to share views on one particular policy domain.”

Settle, who presented her work in Germany, shared some Facebook posts with her audience. She asked them about the political views of the person who posted it. “German audiences pick up on the same stereotypes that Americans do!,” she said. “So whatever drives the associations in our minds between certain social characteristics and political views transcends the borders of our country!”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his elected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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