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Breaking The Social Media Prism: How To Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing – Chris Bail

by Venky

Shattering popular myths and in the process, uncovering some extraordinary revelations, Chris Bail’s enormously influential book, “Breaking The Social Media Prism” is a much needed antidote in, and, for bewildering times where fake news proliferates and political polarization runs amok on various social media platforms. People hurl abuse and vitriol in 280 characters at one another, and are even ready to severe painstakingly nurtured family ties just to keep alive the embers stoking their flaming ideologies. In fact, economists Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla after tracking the average length of time people spent at Thanksgiving dinner several weeks after the divisive 2016 presidential election found that Thanksgiving dinners were 30–50 minutes shorter if they were attended by a mix of people from Republican- and Democratic-leaning voting precincts. Bail is a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, and also the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. Engaged in the study of ‘computational social science’, Bail and his team conduct studies on online political behavior. Some of the findings thrown up by their research is, putting it mildly, jaw dropping.

For example, the concept of ‘echo-chambers’ is most touted to be at the centre of all internet prejudices and biases that lead to online extremism. Hence the exhortations by social media experts for users to ‘step out of their echo-chambers.’ But what is it that exactly happens to/with a user when she does indeed step out of her echo-chamber? In a curious experiment, Bail and his team persuaded a randomly selected cohort of Republicans and Democrats to persistently listen to the views of their opponents. This was with an objective to ascertain changes in attitude towards opposing factions. The outcome of the experiment revealed an unfortunate trajectory. People who were even moderately conservative became staunchly conservative and mild libertarians became more entrenched in their dogmas.

As Bail elucidates, the phenomenon of ‘false polarization’ exacerbates existing fissures and frictions. The term itself can be defined to mean “the tendency for people to overestimate the amount of ideological difference between themselves and people from other political parties.” For example, a national survey by the Pew Research Center from 2018 found that 55 percent of Republicans thought of the Democratic Party as “extremely liberal” while a little over a third of Democrats described the GOP as “extremely conservative.” A close examination of the data revealed that people who relied on social media to keep abreast of current affairs were prone to substantially exaggerating the supposed ideological extremism of their opposition party members.

Further as Bail illustrates, this polarization also drags centrists further deep into hibernation mode. Alarmed and astonished by the extreme positions taken by extraordinarily aggressive people (Bail gives the example of an otherwise decent and impeccably well mannered man in real life who transforms into a filth spewing monster on social media. The man’s Twitter handle is replete with actual pictures of excrements, within each of which are placed studiously photoshopped images of prominent Democrats), these centrists shy away from expressing their valuable opinions and defer from contributing to all meaningful discourse. As Bail himself discloses, “70% of U.S. social media users never or rarely post or share about political, social issues according to this new report from Pew. A *STRONG MAJORITY* of Republicans with moderate views rarely or never post about politics.”

While Bail blames convoluted algorithms predominantly for creating a polarization effect, he argues that there is room for optimism. Bail and his team invited a random population to test out a new customized experimental social media platform called DiscussIt. The participants were informed that they would be chatting anonymously with someone else. What the participants were not informed was the fact that the invite code that given to them to access the platform paired them a member of a different political affiliation. The topics for discussion were also provided upfront such as immigration or gun control. Unlike the earlier failed experiment on echo chambers, people who used the anonymous chat app to talk about either gun control or immigration depolarized much more than people who didn’t. That effect was even stronger for Republicans.

Bail’s book is a treasure trove of details and information on seminal social science experiments. Some meriting especial mention include:

  • The discovery by sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton of the principle of homophily. The two professors—who had been studying how new media technologies were shaping political beliefs—observed that people tend to form social connections with those who are similar to themselves. “Birds of a feather flock together.”
  • German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, groundbreaking study on the role played by throbbing, teeming and vibrant salons in laying the groundwork for the systems of mass communication that emerged in the twentieth century;
  • American Sociologist Erving Goffman’s amazing discovery that we read our social environments through a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, including facial expressions, other types of body language, and tones of voice.

Bail concludes his book by offering three practical and easily implementable “strategies” for breaking the prism of social media and its harmful refraction: “First, we can learn to see the prism and understand how it distorts our identities, as well as those of other people. Second, we can learn to see ourselves through the prism and monitor how our behavior gives the prism its power. Finally, we can learn how to break the prism by changing these behaviors and discovering how to engage in more productive conversations with the other side.”

The most refreshing aspect of Bail’s book is the opportunity that it affords the reader for engaging in introspection. Everyone who is not a Jaron Lanier, (popularly and universally acclaimed as the father of Virtual reality who is now a social media apostate and a recluse living under a rock) and hence who automatically happens to be a social media user can relate to the concepts and ideas articulated by Bail. I myself got name called in a very incendiary vein a few days ago just for posting a clarificatory remark on the page of an acquaintance. That remark was, by no stretch of imagination, either a rebuke or a reprimand. A mild riposte perhaps. Such an unexpected jibe induced a spontaneous resolve never to post on that acquaintance’s wall henceforth. But on hindsight, there might have been a better manner in which I could have conveyed my thought process, not in terms of sincerity, but in terms of subtlety at least. But in line with the hope exuded by Bail in his book, there will come another opportunity.

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