By Cathleen Cusachs
Everyone seems to have an opinion on social media platforms and their effects on our society. But, what is the truth? The New Yorker tried to tackle this question by reviewing research on all sides of the opinionated coin. Their conclusion is inclusive; no one seems to know. “We’re years into this, and we’re still having an uninformed conversation about social media,” one researcher told The New Yorker. “It’s totally wild.”
A social psychologist interviewed by The New Yorker, Jonathan Haidt, believes social media virality has dissolved trust, institutional belief, and public life. Confirmation bias thrives through social media, he argues. He’s compared Twitter retweets to darts, causing pain in others while one’s own brilliance shines. However, Haidt is adamant he is not a “platform-basher,” and he partnered with Chris Bail, a sociologist, to prevent his own confirmation bias.
Haidt and Bail invited roughly two dozen scholars to contribute to an open-source, living Google Doc, eventually entitled, “Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review.” The document is a collection of published articles, with conflicting conclusions, related to the question, “Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies since the early 2010s?” The document, presently at 166 pages, is available to the public.
Bail’s research stands opposite Haidt’s in some areas. For example, he told The New Yorker that misinformation and political echo chambers are largely overestimated. He argues social media networks actually diversify our exposure to other opinions, which might be more of an issue than people think. “Stepping outside your echo chamber is supposed to make you moderate, but maybe it makes you more extreme,” Bail said.
Bail cites work by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist, who found that the vast majority of radical, extremist content is consumed by people who deliberately seek it out. Nyhan told The New Yorker that many studies “will find polarization on social media, but that might just be the society we live in reflected on social media!” He believes the data is still not strong enough for any real conclusions to be made, though the public discourse encourages otherwise.
Haidt’s analysis of the research collected in the interdisciplinary Google Doc has left many still skeptical. To this, Haidt told The New Yorker, “Academic debates play out over decades and are often never resolved, whereas the social-media environment changes year by year,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting around five or ten years for literature reviews.”
The conversation extends beyond these three scholars and can be read in full at The New Yorker.