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.”

Social media has become this huge digital force as the years have gone on. It is understandable that people are wary of its reach and how it seems to have an effect on many people. Whilst there are bad sides to social media, of course these things cannot be swept under the rug, the positives of it do show in multiple ways.

For instance, with the use of social media, businesses have been able to expand their reach and be part of a new generations way of viewing things. It helps them to change their business, connect with multiple people, and just generally be part of a fast advancing space that keeps growing year by year.

Volunteering is easier to come by on these platforms as well, with non-profits engaging more with different people, promoting various ways that they can help, and being able to show and discuss things that are going on in the world today. Activism has become bigger thanks to social media platforms. Combining this with volunteer management software that helps with email messaging, volunteer check-ins, scheduling, and online donations, they have been able to keep fighting for causes that need this recognition.

It all has a knock-on effect, and whilst politics will always be part of this platform, it is not the main reason why they are used. Yes, social media will always play a part in the spreading of political information and as time goes on that percentage may shift either up and down, but not taking into account the positives shows that people are not looking deeper into how they can utilize these platforms to drown out the vile, harsh, and misinformed voices.