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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Platforms Are Poisoning Conversations

Maeve Duggan

Maeve Duggan

Maeve Duggan

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 11, 2017.

When people think of technology, they often have two simultaneous but conflicting thoughts: it helps and it hurts. Pew Research Center has studied Americans’ technology habits for two decades, and throughout that time, the public has identified clear benefits and drawbacks. While people value technology’s openness and connectivity, they are weary of its distractions and capacity to mislead.

These concerns are particularly salient when it comes to politics. The rise of digital technology has coincided with unprecedented political polarization in this country. From think pieces to casual conversations, many feel technology exacerbates these divisions. They are left to wonder how tools meant to bring us closer together can sometimes drive us further apart.

But while the technology may be new, engagement online is often a reflection of political involvement more broadly. For instance, a recent Pew Research Center report showed that those who are politically engaged take active steps to interact with political material on social media. One-in-five of these political enthusiasts “often” discuss politics on these platforms, while more than half follow political candidates or figures. And while a notable proportion expresses misgivings about the tone of political discussions on social media, the politically engaged are more likely to think social media help bring new voices into the discussion and get people involved with issues that matter to them.  All in all, more than a third say they like seeing lots of political content on their feeds.

Still, a substantial portion of Americans try to avoid politics altogether. Nearly seven in 10 social media users say they “hardly ever” or “never” discuss politics on these platforms. Yet the topic can be hard to escape—37 percent say they are “worn out” by the amount of politics they see in their feeds. A majority finds their interactions with political opponents on social media leave them with less in common than they thought, and they describe the set-up as stressful and frustrating. About half of users say their political discussions on social media are less respectful, less likely to be resolved, less civil and more angry than other places they talk about politics.

So what is to be done when a vocal minority and a frustrated majority share the same online space?

Many people believe that all parties have a role to play in balancing the political with the personal. For instance, as “fake news” became a phenomenon during the 2016 presidential election, Americans were asked who should be responsible for preventing inaccurate information from gaining attention. Overall, equal shares pointed to social media companies and search engines, public policy makers, and members of the public. The prevailing view is that these online public squares should be nurtured and policed by their creators—not just their users. Common spaces require coordinated solutions, in technology as in politics.

Maeve Duggan is a research associate at Pew Research Center.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

May 24, 2017