Would you be upset if your child (or hypothetical child) wanted to marry someone from the opposing political party? Americans have responded more negatively to this inter-party marriage question in recent decades. In the 1960s, less than ten percent of Americans responded “no” to the question. Today, more than thirty percent of Americans respond negatively, and the trend is only increasing. Jaime Settle, Associate Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, seeks to answer the puzzle of psychological polarization, comprised of the processes of affective and perceived polarization. Affective polarization refers to the negative affect that people feel toward an out-group. Perceived polarization is the phenomenon of people believing that the ideas and political beliefs of their fellow citizens (especially the other side of the political spectrum) are further apart than they actually are under detailed examination. Why do people believe that they are far apart in political ideology? Additionally, how did negative perceptions of the opposite political party transcend our view of political elites and transfer to fellow citizens?
In her 2018 award-winning book, Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, Jaime Settle argues that the specific ways we communicate on social media like Facebook are uniquely suited to foster psychological polarization. Giving a talk to a packed room on October 2nd at Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, Settle outlined the claims that structure her argument and her “Expressions, News, and Discussion” (END) framework that conceptualizes the way we communicate on Facebook. Most of our Facebook interactions are not related to politics at all, but the structure of social media features like the “news feed” can passively transmit political information at a glance without requiring any reciprocal social interaction. The passive nature of political information transfer on Facebook leads to a three-step process. Facebook allows for the identification of political views and affiliations, which leads to the generation of biased information on ideology and people, and results in Facebook users making social inferences about one another.
Settle uses observational and experimental methods to make five claims about Facebook and its effects on political polarization. One, Facebook political engagement is novel and distinct from other forms of social interaction due to the passivity, structure, and layout of its features as illustrated by the END framework. Two, people make political inferences based on others’ political content even though in some circumstances it may be difficult to discern exactly what constitutes politically informative content. Three, Facebook’s features facilitate biases. Four, social feedback on Facebook is a positive reinforcement of identity. For example, comments or likes on a photo create a loop of political expression and identify expression. Political content on Facebook has also become very stylized (e.g., the fonts, layouts, and images used fit a particular type), which has its own effects when it feeds into partisan stereotypes of both one’s own party and other political parties. Five, Facebook users are judgmental about political outgroups and others’ level of knowledge. Strong partisans not only are more likely to post more politically-driven content and use Facebook for political means, they are very confident in their judgments of the knowledge levels of others and the strength of tie to whom they are judging does not moderate evaluations. In other words, people do not soften their evaluations of knowledge levels even if someone is a friend or kin.
The majority of our social interactions on Facebook are not political in nature, but the structure of Facebook itself passively transmits political information. As more partisan people use Facebook, it will only further affect how people perceive the partisanship and ideologies of others. The polarization of America began before the existence of Facebook, but the social media platform is a significant part of how people socialize and communicate today. If the medium is indeed the message, then we must further understand the polarizing mechanics of Facebook and other social media.