How Social Media Echo Chambers Drown Out the Voices in the Middle

Facebook "War Room" leader for Brazil elections Lexi Sturdy works during a media demonstration on Oct 17, 2018, in Menlo Park, California. (Noah Berger /AFP/Getty Images)

Most of us hold beliefs on issues that don’t always fall along political party lines. For instance, maybe you’re a Democrat who doesn’t believe in abortion, or a Republican who believes there should be stricter gun laws.

Laura Jakli, a fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, wanted to take a deeper look at how this all plays out within social media echo chambers, where beliefs are amplified and reinforced.

So, Jakli and her team sampled 40,000 Twitter users, breaking them up based on their political ideologies, far and moderate right, and far and moderate left. The team found that when there is a hot-button issue in the news, moderate positions seem to disappear.

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She gives the example of the Las Vegas shooting last year where 58 people were killed. After the shootings, “moderate right” Twitter users who once showed support for gun control started tweeting ideas like, maybe we should all be armed, or protect gun rights.

“You might naturally have a pretty diverse opinion on the topic compared to your party. But then after these events you kind of merge or mold with the people you follow,” says Jakli. "And that's problematic, insofar as that opinion formation at that point is not really this independent long-term thought process, but maybe you’re literally just, quote unquote, following the echo chamber.”

Jakli’s findings suggest we are sorting into two really big categories, even though the middle is still there. “It's really difficult for people to really have a strong awareness of what is pulling them one way or another,” notes Jakli.

But her findings show that the views that were tweeted and retweeted were much more binary, basically falling along party lines.

Which begs the bigger question. How might this sorting impact how we vote?

I’m Definitely Voting Republican

San Jose resident Marion Singer says she never really saw herself as very political. She always made a point to vote, but as a mother of five, she spent most of her time focusing on her children, and she rarely had political discussions outside her home.

It wasn’t until around 2016 that she started engaging in heated political discussions on Facebook. And as time went on, she became more and more vocal on social media. “I think what changed for me was the division and how people didn't allow for someone else's opinion. And that really bothered me.”

Singer started to feel like she needed to pick sides on Facebook and Twitter. And even though all of her adult life she was registered as a Democrat, Singer started to see opinions and talking points from the party that she was vehemently opposed to. For instance, her son is a police officer, and it feels like some of the Democratic rhetoric is anti-police. Singer is also strongly opposed to abortion, and she doesn’t see a Democrat aligned with that belief.

“I've had some friends I've had for years and years and years block me, because I see a post and I'll speak my opinion,” says Singer. “I find now the only people you can have a conversation with are people of the same belief as you.”

Singer plans to vote along Republican Party lines this midterm election. She voted for President Trump in 2016 and she expects she will again in 2020. On social media, Singer has found a tribe, and that tribe is conservative and Republican. So, while she may not agree with everything, even with what the president says sometimes, she agrees with enough to pull her from being a conservative Democrat to a Republican.

Stanford political science professor and Hoover Institution fellow Morris Fiorina has spent years studying political polarization vs. sorting. He says it's too soon to tell whether social media echo chambers are significantly changing how we vote. A lot of Americans he notes, aren’t even on social media.

But one thing is clear, Fiorina says.

“The Democrats have shed their conservative wing. The Republicans have shed their liberal wing. We now have two highly ideological parties. Some people might say, well is that a distinction without a difference? No, the significance is the middle is still there. The middle is still big. It's about 40 percent of the public. But it has no home in either party.”

Fiorina believes that as people say there is no middle, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And while he doesn’t know how to solve the sorting we’re seeing, he’s hopeful that moderate candidates will take advantage of harnessing it, and run on agendas that align with moderate beliefs.

But what no one has figured out yet is how to use social media to bring a civil, more nuanced dialogue that truly represents who we are as Americans.

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