Fixing Social Media: Sure Enough

January 25, 2023

It is not that social media platforms set out to do harm, exactly. They just regularly prioritize profits above the wellbeing of society. BrookingsTech Stream hopes to help mitigate one such ill in, “How Social Media Platforms Can Reduce Polarization.” The advice is just a bit late, though, by about 15 years. If we had known then what we know now, perhaps we could have kept tech companies from getting addicted to stirring the pot in the first place.

Nevertheless, journalists Christian Staal Bruun Overgaard and Samuel Woolley do a good job describing the dangers of today’s high polarization, how we got here, and what might be done about it. See the article for that discussion complete with many informative links. Regarding where to go from here, the authors note that (perhaps ironically) social media platforms are in a good position to help reverse the trend, should they choose to do so. They tell us:

Our review of the scientific literature on how to bridge societal divides points to two key ideas for how to reduce polarization. First, decades of research show that when people interact with someone from their social ‘outgroup,’ they often come to view that outgroup in a more favorable light. Significantly, individuals do not need to take part in these interactions themselves. Exposure to accounts of outgroup contact in the media, from news articles to online videos, can also have an impact. Both positive intergroup contact and stories about such contact have been shown to dampen prejudice toward various minority groups.

The second key finding of our review concerns how people perceive the problem of polarization. Even as polarization has increased in recent years, survey research has consistently shown that many Americans think the nation is more divided than it truly is. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans think they dislike each other more than they actually do. These misconceptions can, ironically, drive the two sides further apart. Any effort to reduce polarization thus also needs to correct perceptions about how bad polarization really is. For social media platforms, the literature on bridging societal divides has important implications.”

The piece discusses five specific recommendations for platforms: surface more positive interparty contact, prioritize content that’s popular among disparate user groups, correct misconceptions, design better user interfaces, and collaborate with researchers. Will social media companies take the researchers’ advice to actively promote civil discourse over knee-jerk negativity? Only if accountability legislation and PR headaches can ever outweigh the profit motive.

The UK has a different idea: Send the executives of US social media companies to prison.

Cynthia Murrell, January 25, 2023


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