Is Social Media Really Polarizing Us? Or Is it Just… Us?
Chris Bail in Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
In this episode, Andrew is joined by Chris Bail, author of Breaking the Social Media Prism, to discuss the ironic dynamics of social media platforms.
From the episode:
Chris Bail: I think the problem with social media is we focus so much on the platforms and what we can do through, say, reform and regulation. But the research indicates that most of the common explanations of what’s going on, things like echo chambers, things like foreign misinformation campaigns, or maybe, if you like, algorithms that radicalize us—there’s very little evidence in the research to support any of these ideas. And instead, what we’re seeing is really strong evidence that it’s us. It’s the social media users themselves that are contributing to polarization from the bottom up.
And so what I think we need to do is understand the human motivations for polarizing behavior. We’re not going on social media to engage in a better competition of ideas, our research indicates. Instead, we’re going on social media to do something that is all too human. We each day knowingly or unknowingly present different versions of ourselves on social media, observe how other people react using powerful new tools like follower accounts and like buttons, and then we tend to cultivate the identities that really make us feel good about ourselves, that give us a sense of status. Now, of course, even though we’d like to use social media as a mirror and use it to understand ourselves and each other, in the book, I introduce this term “the social media prism” to capture the reality, which is that of course, of course, social media distorts our understanding of ourselves and each other. It fuels status-seeking extremists, and it makes moderates seem all but invisible.
Chris Bail is professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab. He is the author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (Princeton). Website chrisbail.net Twitter @chris_bail