Polarization isn’t America’s or Facebook’s biggest problem

Last week was revealing times in America. In Minneapolis, tearful black eyewitnesses, some as young as nine, described George Floyd’s last moments before police killed him. In Georgia, Republican state lawmakers passed a law restricting access to the ballot box that should disproportionately affect Black voters. Efforts to restrict voter turnout are also underway in 42 other states.

Meanwhile, in a seemingly different world, a debate about the polarization of American society has come to a head. After years of researchers, journalists, policymakers and experts blaming the polarization of many of the country’s ills and naming Facebook as a key source, the company’s vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg responded. In one essay published on Medium, the executive denied Facebook’s responsibility for the polarization and argued more broadly for how individual preferences and actions shape how algorithms work. Unsurprisingly, the essay drew a lot of criticism, especially for its arguments that Facebook plays little role in polarization.

This back-and-forth between Facebook and its critics of the role of algorithms has garnered a lot of attention on Twitter among researchers, technical journalists, and reformers, but it illustrates exactly what our national debate is. often missing. In a world of George Floyd’s murder and restrictions on black voting rights, polarization shouldn’t be our primary concern – and it shouldn’t be Facebook’s, either. The time and attention of Facebook executives and critics would be better spent addressing growing anti-democratic and extremist threats, especially from right-wing political elites, in response to prominent movements for justice racial and political equality.

After the 2016 election, polarization quickly became a central concern for many scholars seeking to understand the issues in contemporary American politics. In the weeks around January 6 coup attempt, it has reached its climax. Polarization means a lot of different things in a sprawling research literature, but basically it’s about the distance between people on a number of different dimensions – including their political and moral views and their feelings towards each other’s members. party and social groups.

At the heart of this research is the concern for the unraveling of social cohesion or solidarity, which the researchers say has the capacity to undermine the stability of the American political system. During the last decade, ‘emotional polarization“- or heightened negative feelings towards members of the opposing party – in particular, has emerged as a central concern for its ability to undermine social relations, distort economic processes and potentially erosion of political accountability and democracy itself.

The causes of emotional and other polarization are discussed considerable debate. While many media accounts and reform efforts focus on social media as the source of this national animosity, Clegg is correct that the evidence pointing to Facebook or other platforms is mixed at best. Researchers such as Liliana Mason traced the roots of polarization to human psychology and to the changes in both political parties during the post-civic period, especially their “sorting” based on things such as race, religion, geography, and class. This means that people have less and less connection with those on the other side. And, ironically, parties have become socially very different even as Americans hold similar political views on a range of issues. Other researchers have argued for the role of political elites by creating polarization for political ends, partisan and identity calls by campaign, and premium multimedia environments that provide better access to partisan media.

That’s not to say social media is completely off the hook. In one new book, Chris Bail, director of the polarization lab at Duke University, shows how human psychology intersects with the design of social media to get people to interpret their identities in extreme ways. As a result, social media users often have a distorted view of the political landscape and believe that there are more extremists around them than there actually are.

We share many of the concerns about polarization – but it is not the main problem in this country. Rather, it is white supremacy and the resulting deep racial inequalities in police and voting rights, as well as in health, wealth and education, that should receive more attention in technological reform, l ‘policy making and wider public discourse, instead of reactively blaming technology for democratic problems. As the Republican Party has rightly demonstrated, many of its leaders have pledged to use increasingly extreme and undemocratic tactics to continue to represent their leaders. predominantly white and Christian voters-of spreading false allegations of electoral fraud and forge links with paramilitary groups at embrace disinformation and conspiracy as a political tactic, stoking the white backlash on Black Lives Matter, and pursue policies and rhetoric against transgender rights.

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