How social media opens your mind

Discussing the 2016 election, Barack Obama summed up the dangerously polarising effects of social media.

Facebook and Twitter, he said, offer “the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal”. Rather than bringing us together, they splintered us.

It turns out though, that he is wrong.

Despite a prevailing view that social media produces echo chambers where people are exposed to neither debate nor dissenting views, a study has found the reverse may be true, or, at the very least, that it does not matter. Instead, it is those who use social media the least who are becoming most extreme.

Studies have shown increasing polarisation. One in 20 people in 1960 would have been upset if their child married someone with different political leanings but a new study found this has risen to 40 per cent today.

The study, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at measures of polarisation, including people’s views towards both major US parties, minorities, defence spending and government intervention in the economy, designed to test conformity in politics. Although polarisation increased over time, social media did not seem to be to blame. Among those aged under 40, where 80 per cent used social media, polarisation had increased by five per cent since 1996, but for those aged over 75, where 80 per cent didn’t use social media, it had risen by 38 per cent.

Matthew Gentzkow, of Stanford University, said researchers had followed a hunch that the idea of the social media bubble was wrong. “If you’re paying attention to things that are happening politically, one certainly doesn’t have the sense that older people, or people with less education, who use social media at lower rates, are not part of this. I haven’t had any sense around Brexit or other recent events that somehow that was all around younger people.”