How Social Media is Shaping the Political Divide
Editor's Note: This post was originally created by Spredfast before Spredfast and Lithium merged and became Khoros.
Every day, we log into our social accounts and see the world through the lenses of people we know and many we don’t. We scroll past the opinions of our friends and family members intermingled with content created in cities with unfamiliar names. The omnipresence of social networks in our day-to-day lives opens a door to millions of diverse perspectives – yet, especially during the election, the majority of us would rather surround ourselves with our own.
Interactions on social media platforms indicate that the majority of Americans have a filtered perception of the election because we all suffer from confirmation bias; we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges our beliefs. The end result is in a divided country in which the presidential candidate that you support determines:
- 1.) Which of two unconnected social worlds you live in,
- 2.) what news you follow, which facts you see and which you don’t, and
- 3.) how you perceive real world events.
Two Social Worlds
On social media platforms, the world looks different depending on the candidate that you support. Here’s an example: The majority of opinion polls say Trump’s chance at the presidency is unlikely at best. Yet if you’re a Trump supporter on Twitter, you are probably still hopeful that the election will tip in your favor. After all, your entire Twitter feed is flooded with evidence that Trump will win.
As of the final presidential debate on October 19th, self-identified Trump supporters outnumbered Hillary supporters two to one on Twitter. People with pro-Trump hashtags like #TrumpPence16 or #MAGA in their Twitter bios tweeted more than 1.2 million times during the final debate, while Hillary supporters (#HillYes, #ImWithHer, etc) generated less than half a million tweets.
On social media platforms, the world looks different depending on the candidate that you support.
Trump’s dominance on Twitter seems even greater to his supporters because they are more likely to follow those that also support him. One study confirmed that Facebook users tend to be friends with “like-minded” friends, resulting in “non-interacting communities centered around different narratives.”
So think about this from a Trump supporter’s perspective. How could Hillary be winning if the Twittersphere is clearly dominated by Trump supporters? Surely this is impossible—unless the election is rigged. Or at least that may seem like a plausible conclusion.
Meanwhile, the millions of pro-Trump tweets could be invisible to some Hillary supporters, because they are also more likely to follow those that support their preferred candidate. This is one of the reasons there is a large gap in what Trump supporters believe versus what Hillary supporters believe about the two candidates.
Truth = Facts & Rumors We Like; Lies = Facts & Rumors We Don’t
The difference in perspective is further amplified by the difference in news sources shared and followed by the two groups. Statistically, more often than not, Clinton supporters follow either the New York Times, CNN, or Washington Post, but not Fox News.
If you are a Trump supporter, you probably follow either Fox News or the Drudge Report, but not CNN. If you are one of the 29% of Hillary supporters who follow @CNN, you likely saw the tweets on the right in the image above; if you are one in the majority of Trump supporters who follow @FoxNews or @Drudge_Report, you likely saw the tweets on the left. Either you are seeing a constant stream of tweets calling Trump a liar or a flood of tweets calling out Hillary’s lies, but you probably aren’t seeing a mix of both. Clearly, election coverage looks very different depending on which candidate you support.
Same Events, Different Responses
Even when the two parties are reacting to the exact same information source – during the debates, for example – they seem to be perceiving candidates’ statements differently. In the first presidential debate, Trump supporters talked most about Benghazi, while Clinton supporters discussed climate change. In the second debate, each camp discussed sexual assault the most, yet Trump’s supporters focused mostly on Bill Clinton’s past while Hillary supporters tweeted about Trump’s “locker room” tape.
Note: Generic terms such as #Debate, Trump, and Clinton not included.
Surprisingly, the difference in topics discussed is not a result of the two groups of supporters reacting to different portions of the debate, but a difference in reactions to the same moments. Despite the difference in what the two parties are discussing, the ebb and flow of tweets coming from Trump and Hillary supporters mirror each other (except when Trump called Hillary a “nasty woman” around 9:40PM on the day of the final debate, when Trump supporters briefly fell silent while chatter from Hillary supporters surged).
Each candidate's supporters have different reactions to the same moment
Both reactions from Trump supporters and Hillary supporters during final presidential debate peaked between 9:10 and 9:15pm CT; however, during those five minutes, Trump supporters were mostly discussing threats from the Middle East, while Clinton supporters were tweeting about Trump’s response to Wallace’s question about conceding to the winner of election. Even while watching the same arguably unbiased coverage, content in tweets from Trump and Clinton supporters was entirely different, even though their in-the-moment reactions had not yet been affected by the opinions of friends or press. In other words, our confirmation biases are so deeply ingrained that we seem to only hear the portions of the debates that are favor our own candidate or discredit the opposition
Though people are partly to blame for opting into their own social silos, the truth is social network algorithms are also designed to reinforce this confirmation bias, in part because users like to see content that aligns with their beliefs.
But as more and more users realize how polarized their newsfeeds really are, the demand for decreased polarization grows. One recent article from the Guardian about how Facebook’s algorithm deepens confirmation bias is followed by nearly 800 comments from users who say they want to see greater diversity in their newsfeeds and 17,000 people tweeted complaints about Facebook algorithms causing increased polarization in the last three months alone.
Facebook has historically responded to user demands, from the decision to incorporate live video in September to altering the algorithm to limit clickbait earlier in June, so it’s entirely plausible that a shift away from newsfeed polarization is on the horizon. After all, creating a more open newsfeed is one of the few things both Trump and Clinton supporters agree on.