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Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.
In theory, American federalism allows a thousand flowers to bloom, as cities and states serve as laboratories of democracy. Transparent governance — “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” — empowers the electorate to see what its representatives are up to. The internet gives both voice and access to virtually everyone regardless of their status. The surge in small dollar campaign contributions democratizes the financing of elections, lessening the power of the rich.
The question, as contemporary developments suggest, is whether these reforms also exacerbate polarization and lead to the escalation of partisan hostility based on moral conviction.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, described the adverse forces at work in an emailed response to my inquiry:
As we expanded opportunities for the public to participate at all levels of government and at all levels of policy implementation, we have proliferated the opportunity for the most highly ideological people and for special interests to have multiple bites of the policy apple because the opportunities for input far exceed the capacities and interests of most normal people. People have to rely on others to digest the political world for them so that it is more understandable and comports with their worldviews. Hence, the opportunity for internet influencers and new media elites.
In a 2017 study, “The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband internet on Partisan Affect,” Yphtach Lelkes of the University of Pennsylvania, Gaurav Sood, an independent researcher, and Shanto Iyengar of Stanford explored “the impact of access to broadband internet on affective polarization.”
They did indeed find that
access to broadband internet increases partisan hostility. The effect occurs in both years and is stable across levels of political interest. We also find that access to broadband internet boosts partisans’ consumption of partisan media, a likely cause of increased polarization.
More recently, in a November 2021 paper, “How social media shapes polarization,” Jay J. Van Bavel, Elizabeth Harris, Claire Robertson and Anni Sternisko, all of N.Y.U., and Steve Rathje of the University of Cambridge, concluded that “social media shapes polarization through the following social, cognitive, and technological processes: partisan selection, message content, and platform design and algorithm.” Although they cautioned that “social media is unlikely to be the main driver of polarization, we posit that it is often a key facilitator.”
On the internet, Van Bavel and his colleagues write,
Not only do people seek out politically congruent information, they also update their beliefs more when that information supports what they already believe (asymmetric updating). Finally, they are more willing to share politically congruent information online. These cognitive biases in information seeking, belief updating, and sharing may all increase polarization.
Not just polarization, but negative or hostile polarization, Van Bevel and his co-authors point out:
Divisive social media messages tend to receive more engagement, which might contribute to polarization. An analysis of nearly 3 million social media posts found that posts about the political out-group (often reflecting out-group animosity) were more likely to be shared than those about the political in-group. Each additional out-group word (e.g., “liberal” or “Democrat” for a Republican post) increased the odds of that post being shared by 67 percent and increased the volume of ‘angry’ reactions on Facebook.
In addition, Van Bavel and his co-authors continue,
another reason why divisive content might be more prominent online is because it captures our attention. Social media operates as an attention economy, whereby individuals, organizations, and politicians try to go ‘viral.’ Sharing socially divisive content may be an effective strategy for message diffusion. Indeed, the most politically extreme American politicians have the most followers. Thus, social media platforms may be incentivizing moral outrage and divisive content, especially towards outgroups.
In an email, Van Bavel wrote that in a separate study
We analyzed over 500,000 messages on hot-button political issues (e.g., climate change, gun control, L.G.B.T.Q. issues) on Twitter and the discussion is often highly moralized. For every moral emotional word people used in a message it was 15-20 percent more likely to be retweeted by others.
There is an ever-increasing number of studies showing that social media enable polarization and partisan hostility.
Josh Pasek, a professor of media and communications at the University of Michigan, emailed me to argue that
There is a tendency among many to assume that social media are putting us in echo chambers, where we only hear the stuff that confirms our worldviews. Instead, it seems likely that social media are spurring polarization by facilitating the transmission of extreme information across the political spectrum. The effect of this, likely, is to make ordinary people think that those on the other side are extreme. And this, in turn, fuels a deeper entrenchment in one’s own group’s attitudes and a willingness to support illiberal policies to avoid letting political opponents gain power.
Social media, Pasek continued,
supplements and provides further fuel to an environment where we have experienced a distinct erosion of social and institutional trust. Declines in trust, in turn, have led to a situation where individuals, and in some cases media institutions as well, have failed to recognize qualitative differences in information quality and have enabled an environment where elites can attempt to redefine the truth and authorities have a particularly hard time challenging it.
Along similar lines, David Karpf, a professor of professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, argued in an email that “the overarching trend is that social media is not a primary cause of polarization, but it has been an accelerant.”
Karpf observed that
the biggest broad theme has been toward the nationalization of our politics. Social media, along with the earlier blogosphere, accelerated that trend. It has created a key disjuncture, because our electoral system is designed for local representation — the two senators from any given state are expected to represent their state first, and their party second.
“A decade ago,” Karpf noted,
we were largely celebrating the power of social media for allowing online communities-of-interest to find each other and collaborate. It is very useful for fast-twitch mobilization. And it is generally easier to mobilize against a perceived threat than it is to mobilize in favor of a shared, complicated, positive vision. So that leads to political partisans mostly seeing examples of the other side at their worst (and sometimes stripped of context).
Social media heightens the level of participants’ anger and, in the process, diminishes prospects for effective resolution of legitimate grievances. In “How Effective Is Online Outrage?” William J. Brady and Molly J. Crockett, psychologists at Northwestern and Yale, write:
Effective action requires both a motivation to act and the ability to act strategically (i.e., by aligning actions with goals). However, anger — a key component of outrage — impairs strategic decision-making by reducing the ability to consider long-term consequences and assess risks. Angry decision makers are more likely to distrust and blame others, make dispositional attributions, and oversimplify complicated issues. Thus, in the context of working toward social progress, anger induces a style of decision-making that could hamper the ability to resolve complex social conflicts.
Social media fosters a cacophony of voices, Brady and Crockett note, making it
especially unlikely to lead to effective collective action. Social media lowers the threshold for expressing outrage by reducing its costs, and outrage spreads like wildfire online. By increasing the volume on outrage, social media could make it more difficult for dissident voices to make an impact in an increasingly noisy public sphere. If one function of outrage is to signal the worthiest causes for collective action, lowering the threshold for expressing outrage could make it harder to detect that signal among noise, preventing groups from coalescing their collective efforts around the most important issues.
Brady, Crockett and Van Bavel joined forces in 2020 to write “The MAD Model of Moral Contagion: The Role of Motivation, Attention, and Design in the Spread of Moralized Content Online.”
They write that polarization is hard to reverse:
Although some research would suggest that a solution to better civil discourse online would be to increase people’s exposure to ideologically diverse viewpoints, existing data demonstrate that exposure to ideologically diverse viewpoints on social media can actually backfire — increasing political polarization.
Brady, Crockett and Van Bavel sketch how this plays out:
The spread of moralized content can have important consequences in the domain of morality and politics, such as in the case of “online firestorms,” or massively cascading bursts of moral outrage that ruin the reputation of individuals or organizations within hours.
The need to affirm a social identity, they write, provides fertile ground for politicians, with the rise of Donald Trump providing perhaps the best example:
Leaders can leverage features of social identity to drive the feelings and actions of followers. The use of moral-emotional expression among political leaders on social media is important because their messages reach large audiences and often drive news coverage. Recent evidence supports the idea that political leaders leverage moral emotional expressions and that these expressions are associated with increased online engagement from their constituents.
In “Digital Media and Democracy: A Systematic Review of Causal and Correlational Evidence Worldwide, a working paper being prepared for publication, Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Lisa Oswald of the Hertie School in Berlin, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute write that social media produce both positive and negative effects — although the latter outweigh the former.
“Our results,” they write, “highlight that digital media are a double-edged sword, with both beneficial and detrimental effects on democracy.”
For democratic countries, Lorenz-Spreen and colleagues continue,
evidence clearly indicates that digital media increases political participation. Less clear but still suggestive are the findings that digital media has positive effects on political knowledge and exposure to diverse viewpoints in news.
On the negative side, however,
Digital media use is associated with eroding the “glue that keeps democracies together”: trust in political institutions. The results indicating this danger converge across methods. Furthermore, our results also suggest that digital media use is associated with increases in hate, populism, and polarization.
Their conclusion: “Our results provide grounds for concern. Alongside the positive effects of digital media for democracy, there is clear evidence of serious threats to democracy.”
The destructive power of polarization is not limited to social media. Take the case of laws and regulations requiring transparency of government proceedings to empower the public to fight corruption and special interest influence.
In “Transparency’s Ideological Drift,” a 2018 article in the Yale Law Journal, David Pozen, a law professor at Columbia, wrote:
Transparency (or publicity), in short, was an explicit centerpiece of the Progressive program to invigorate and professionalize government while enhancing economic competition and fairness. United by their discontent with Gilded Age plutocracy and their insistence on state solutions, progressive lawyers, activists, journalists, and politicians embraced transparency as a means of limiting the excesses of both private corporations and the public servants responsible for overseeing them.
Since then, Pozen wrote by email,
Partisan polarization has been both a cause and consequence of transparency’s disappointing track record. Rising levels of polarization have exacerbated the negative effects of transparency by increasing the cost to politicians of being seen to deviate from partisan scripts.
Transparency mandates, in turn, have exacerbated polarization by creating a less favorable climate for congressional deal-making and by empowering the extremes within each party coalition. Because the contemporary Republican Party is much less legislatively ambitious, and much happier with gridlock, these dynamics harm Democrats more than Republicans.
Or look at another mainstay of American democracy, federalism. In “Laboratories of Democracy,” which was published in 1988, David Osborne, a journalist and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, described how state governments had become engines of beneficial innovation and change. 34 years later, Jacob Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, has a very different perspective in “Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics.”
Grumbach argues that polarization has, in effect, turned state governments into “laboratories of democratic backsliding.”
In his book, Grumbach writes that
Rather than ushering in a democratic responsiveness, social harmony and economic prosperity, the shift in policymaking from the national to the state level since the 1970s has coincided with the weakening of democratic institutions, the precipitous rise of economic inequality and growing mass polarization and discontent.
Indeed, Grumbach argues, “contrary to the hopes of Louis Brandeis, state governments may not be ‘laboratories of democracy’ but laboratories against democracy.”
In an email, Grumbach described the thesis of his book:
The main argument in “Laboratories Against Democracy” is that partisan politics has become entirely national — national networks of activists and interest groups, national media, national fund-raising, and voter attention focused on national identities and conflicts. So now what we’re seeing is groups, especially on the Republican side, using subnational institutions for national goals.
Richard Pildes, a law professor at N.Y.U., described how polarization and the internet have interacted to turn small dollar contributions into an instrument of partisan division and zealotry:
With cable television and social media, individual members of Congress — even in their first years in office — can now reach and create their own national constituency. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was first elected, she had over 9 million followers on the main platforms; the next Democrat was Speaker Pelosi, with over two million, while no other House Democrat had over 300,000. Even in their first years in office, such figures can have an influence on the political culture (if not legislation) never before possible.
On top of that, Pildes continued,
the internet now enables members to raise vast amounts of money, outside the party structure, through small donations from throughout the country. And small-donor funding through the internet is fueled by the same toxic dynamics that drive social media more generally: outrage and extreme positions attract attention, which unleashes a torrent of small donations. When Marjorie Taylor Greene was stripped of committee assignments, shortly after taking office, she quickly raised over $3.2 million in that fund-raising quarter from over 100,000 individual donors, who gave an average of thirty-two dollars — shattering the record for fund-raising in the first quarter of a non-election year.
In an article to be published soon by the California Law Review, “Democracies in the Age of Fragmentation,” Pildes writes:
The challenge the communications revolution poses for democracies, in my view, goes beyond now familiar issues of disinformation, misinformation, or the amplification of outrage. Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the very nature of the new technology age might inherently undermine the capacity for broadly accepted, legitimate, and sustainable political authority.
Technology-driven changes, Pildes continued,
mean that party leaders no longer have as significant leverage over their rank and file members. Being on particular committees is less critical than before. Rising through the ranks is no longer necessary to visibility or money. Nor is going along with the judgment of party leaders as to what positions are in the best interest of the party overall. Party leaders thus have fewer effective tools to manage differences within the party.
In a November 2019 commentary published in the Yale Law Journal, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization,” Pildes succinctly described the upheaval that has taken place over the last decade:
In an initial flush of romantic enthusiasm, social media and the communications revolution were thought to herald a brave new world of empowered citizens and unmediated, participatory democracy. Yet just a few years later, we have shifted to dystopian anxiety about social media’s tendencies to fuel political polarization, reward extremism, encourage a culture of outrage, and generally contribute to the degradation of civic discourse about politics.
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