Social media is tearing us apart, says Pew Research

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By Scott M. Fulton, III

Two decades ago now, ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel coined the phrase “news you can choose,” in a speech about the growing fragmentation of media sources differentiated by their underlying messages. People were beginning to select the news they wanted to hear, and the Web was starting to demonstrate how news could appeal to more narrow, even vertically-defined, interests.

One of the more important studies the Pew Research Center has ever released–first made available on Tuesday (.pdf)–demonstrates that the trend Koppel warned about goes both ways. Social media–which, by definition, is two-way–is fragmenting participants’ responses and interactions with others on important topics into “views they can choose”: aspects of their character that may be colored, or entirely falsified, to appear in agreement with a desirable sub-segment of the social network. Otherwise, it stops some people who cannot so alter their viewpoints from participating altogether.

A survey conducted at this time last year, with cooperation from Rutgers University, asked 1,801 Americans ostensibly about their views concerning then-recent revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of clandestine metadata-collecting operations by NSA employees. A previous Pew poll had already determined Americans’ opinions to be divided almost down the middle, with a slight preponderance saying Snowden’s leaks served the public interest.

But the survey then went on to ask, under which conditions would people be willing to openly discuss the Snowden topic in public? While some 75 percent of all respondents were either very or somewhat willing to discuss Snowden at a family dinner, just 43 percent of the subset of respondents (960 people) who used Facebook, and 41 percent of the subset (223 people) who used Twitter, were as willing to discuss the Snowden topic online.

And in the most chilling finding of the entire survey, just 7 people (when you do the math) were willing to discuss Snowden under any other circumstances, when they were also unwilling to discuss the topic online. Put another way, people who use social media are less likely to speak openly on a controversial topic with their own family face-to-face than people who don’t.

The Rutgers/Pew team’s conclusion is the inverse of the picture of boundless enablement and stimulating engagement that the Web loves to propagate: Social media is training people, systematically, to keep silent.

Is it because people on social networks are mostly disagreeable? Is it that trolls are far too willing to make harmful comments in response to points of view they characterize as being both wrong and in the minority?

Evidently not. A scan of the actual survey results reveals the question of whether respondents felt people typically agree with their points of view. Of 1,017 respondents who are either married or otherwise espoused, 85 percent said their spouses agreed with them on public issues either somewhat or a lot. Some 69 percent said their family tends to agree with them, and 72 percent say their close friends are agreeable.

Even among the social network users, there’s a belief that those who follow them are typically agreeable, with some 60 percent of Facebook users and 50 percent of Twitter users saying their followers tend to agree with them. The process of social selection is clearly aligning people’s points of view. As some Facebook observers have noted, users’ news feeds are indeed becoming echo chambers of their own sentiments.

So it isn’t the lack of a receptive audience that’s the problem. The social pressure, Pew concludes, appears to be coming from the agreeing parties online, not to make utterances anywhere, including in public, that go against the party line.

In short, “friends” are more divisive than trolls.

For more:
– see the Pew Research Center report (.pdf)

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Read more about: Pew Research

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