Facebook and Political Polarization
Facebook has been in the news a lot lately. As representatives from the social network continue to appear before Congressional committees to explain how Facebook will combat the rise of Russian propaganda on the site, the attention of the American people and the news media has understandably turned to this topic. Lost in the media coverage of this issue, however, is coverage of another important issue that Facebook hopes to tackle: political polarization. Despite concerns from pundits and political figures that Facebook allows its users to isolate themselves into political echo chambers, and allegations from studies such as US News and World Report’s “Divided We Stand” that the social network actually drives polarization, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, contends that Facebook can improve our political discourse and reduce polarization by building more of the network’s “meaningful communities.” While this proposition is an appealing one, for it tells Americans that the problem of polarization can be solved from the comfort of their homes and through the medium of their technology, Mr. Zuckerberg’s plan fails to address and is inadequate to the task of addressing the root of polarization—that Americans do not feel they are engaged in a common civic and political enterprise. Facebook’s failure to address the root of this problem is not unique, however; this failure is endemic to all current attempts at mitigating polarization in America.
Mr. Zuckerberg first unveiled his vision for a Facebook that combats polarization in a post entitled “Building Global Community” on February 16, 2017. He reiterated this vision in “Bringing the World Closer Together,” a Facebook post from June 22, 2017. In “Building Global Community,” Mr. Zuckerberg outlined rather broadly how Facebook can begin to rehabilitate political discussion and repair the sundered bonds between ideological opposites in America:
Research suggests that the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions – something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do. If we connect with people about what we have in common – sports teams, TV shows, interests – it is easier to have dialogue about what we disagree on.
According to Mr. Zuckerberg, by connecting people who support the same sports teams, watch the same television series, or share the same hobbies, Facebook can create the background of shared experience necessary to compel users to respect those with whom they disagree politically (purportedly their newfound Facebook friends who share similar interests) and engage in civil discussion with these people.
In “Bringing the World Closer Together,” Mr. Zuckerberg explained that Facebook will encourage its users to get to know each other as “whole people instead of just opinions” by building more “meaningful communities.” He defined meaningful communities as:
[G]roups that upon joining, quickly become the most important part of your social network experience and an important part of your real world structure…. These communities don't just interact online. They hold get-togethers, organize dinners, and support each other in their daily lives.
According to Mr. Zuckerberg, 100 million of Facebook’s 2 billion users participate in these “meaningful communities,” and the bonds these users form are so strong that they interact not only online but in real life, too. Mr. Zuckerberg provided several specific examples of these communities. In San Diego, more than 4,000 military families participate in a group that helps them connect with other military families in the area. In Baltimore, a man named Matt spends hours each day curating a group for black fathers to share advice and encouragement as they raise their children. Across America, thousands of locksmiths participate in a group founded by Derek, a locksmith who hoped to reduce the loneliness of the job.
For the military families in San Diego, the black fathers like Matt in Baltimore, and the locksmiths like Derek across the U.S., the reason they participate in these tight-knit groups is clear. They want to build supportive relationships, share and receive advice, and accomplish a common goal. For the military families in San Diego, this goal is creating a support network on which they can rely while their spouses, sons, and daughters serve their country. For black fathers like Matt in Baltimore, this goal is discerning how best to raise their children. For locksmiths like Derek, this goal is creating a sense of community where they otherwise would not have had one. The people who joined these groups knew they were engaged in a common enterprise. Despite differences of opinion, they knew that they sought to achieve the same end. They might propose different ways to get there, be different people, pray to different gods, or identify with different political parties, but the men and women in these meaningful communities shared a clear sense of moral direction and purpose that made these differences less important, or at the very least bearable. Most Americans do not share this same sense, that they are engaged in a common enterprise, in their political and civic lives today.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, a majority of politically active Americans believe that their policies and positions are motivated by love while their ideological opponents’ policies and positions are motivated by hate. The psychologists who conducted the study termed this phenomenon “motive attribution asymmetry,” and cite it as the main driver of polarization today. Statistics published by the Pew Research Center last year confirm that this phenomenon persists. For the first time in a quarter of a century, 58% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats hold very unfavorable views of the other party, and strong majorities in both parties claim to be genuinely afraid of the other party. According to The New York Times, 50% of Republicans and nearly 33% of Democrats would never want their child to marry a member of the opposite party. Therefore, not only do majorities in both parties believe that the tactics and legislative proposals of the opposite party are motivated by basic hate or selfishness, not only do majorities in both parties fear those who disagree with them politically, large swaths of the population confess being wholly unable to love a member of the other party or welcome them into their family. These are not individuals who believe that they hope to achieve the same goal, even though their opinions differ. In the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, these are not people who see themselves “journeying together toward a united future.”
If Facebook’s meaningful communities hope to reduce polarization, they have to help Americans recover this sense of a united future. This is the natural antidote to the phenomenon of motive attribution asymmetry, which compels Americans who disagree politically to believe that they are moving towards totally opposite futures. In order to revive our sense of a united future, we must first identify and then engage in a common enterprise that can get us there. Thus, to reduce polarization, Facebook’s meaningful communities either have to help Americans reclaim the notion that we are engaged in a common national enterprise or articulate this enterprise anew. Sadly, this is a task to which Facebook and its meaningful communities are commensurately inadequate: the communities’ structure and narrow focus preclude them from focusing their members on the broader work of reclaiming a common national enterprise; their ability to get Facebook users to know each other “as whole people instead of just opinions” does not actually reduce polarization as Mark Zuckerberg believes it will.
Facebook’s meaningful communities commit their participants to niche and already defined enterprises, from building a support network for military families to creating a community wherein black fathers can share advice on how best to raise their children. These groups succeed in bringing people together because of their explicit purposes and users’ unwavering devotion to accomplishing these narrow ends. These communities enrich lives, but do not focus their participants on broader enterprises. Military families in San Diego might build a solid support network, but this does not require that they reconcile conflicting political visions and beliefs. Black fathers in Baltimore might share advice with each other, but the restricted nature of this task does not demand that they work together to find common ground or articulate a common future in the unlikely event that they ascribe to radically different political ideologies. By committing their members to specific endeavors, Facebook’s meaningful communities undoubtedly forge a microcosmic sense of common enterprise. However, because of their narrow focus, these communities are incapable of inspiring the macrocosmic sense of a common national enterprise that our country needs to reduce polarization and triumph over motive attribution asymmetry.
Whether we like it or not, the widening chasm that exists between those on the left and those on the right is unlikely to shrink just because Facebook connects in a “meaningful community” a Bernie bro and an ardent Trump supporter who share an unbreakable love for Stranger Things, the Houston Astros, or the unassailable artistic beauty of Taylor Swift’s first two albums. No, unless the stated goal of the meaningful community was from the start the execution of a common national enterprise, these communities alone cannot sufficiently broaden Americans’ perspectives to the point where they reclaim the notion that we are engaged in a common civic project. The notion that these communities could broaden Americans’ political perspectives sufficiently, or create the background of shared experience necessary to compel people to respect those who totally disagree with them, seems to be based in the fallacious assumption that shared experience alone can reduce polarization. If we simply knew those with whom we disagreed better—“as whole people instead of just opinions”—we could reduce the void between partisans and polarized citizens on the left and the right. But this logic does not hold up in reality, and one needs look no further than the phenomenon of Facebook users unfriending longtime friends from school, work, or their childhood over political differences to see the truth of this.
According to a 2016 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 31% of Facebook users change their settings to see fewer posts from individuals who write posts or share articles in support of political opinions opposite those of the viewer, and 27% of Facebook users block or unfriend Facebook friends for this same reason. Taken together, these two camps of Facebook users amount to 39% of the site's members. In addition to this, before and after the 2016 presidential election, NPR’s Sam Sanders documented a drastic increase in the number of overtly aggressive Facebook posts declaring things such as “Just unfriend me now,” “If you support candidate x/y, we don’t need to be friends,” and “Congrats! If you’re reading this, you survived my friend purge!”
At one point early in the election cycle, I contributed to this problem. After reading a particularly impassioned post from a former friend—who will remain unnamed for the purposes of this example—in support of Trump’s border wall and travel ban, I swiftly unfriended him. I had known this man since grammar school, played baseball with him throughout middle school, and hung out with him several times during high school. He lives in my town, works hard, and I certainly know him as a whole person, not just as the opinion he posted on Facebook. Nevertheless, in that moment, I was sure that my America was fundamentally different from his; I was sure that my vision for the future and his were essentially incompatible. I am not at all proud that I cut myself off from his voice, and I have not repeated this mistake since then. But if this is how I, and Facebook users like me, comport ourselves with people we first met in person, with whom we shared both interests and lived experiences, it is highly unlikely that the site’s meaningful communities, which bring Americans together first online, will have any better luck reducing polarization. Clearly shared experience and interests alone cannot reduce the growing chasm between us; shared microcosmic enterprises cannot call us to the macrocosmic, national enterprise we need to reunite us.
No, the venom that infuses our political discussions and the vitriolic contempt in which many Americans hold those with whom they disagree will not dissipate until our politicians and authors—those arbiters of our national narrative—articulate a common set of civic goals that we share. Broadly speaking, we all hope to perfect our union, increase the availability of well-paying jobs, keep Americans safe at home and abroad, improve the communities around us and the schools available to us, and secure a brighter future for our children and our grandchildren. If we reclaim the notion that, though our opinions differ, we hope to achieve the same end, though we are a diverse people, we are journeying toward a united future, the animosity that permeates our politics and interpersonal interactions will fade. Rather regrettably, Americans are not any closer today to reclaiming this notion today than we were yesterday, for every other major initiative aimed at reducing polarization in America shares Facebook’s failure to address the problem’s root. They fail to articulate explicitly the common national enterprise in which Americans must collectively and cooperatively engage.
Other than Facebook’s attempt to mitigate political polarization by creating more meaningful communities, there are currently three dominant proposals aimed at reducing political polarization in America. The first calls us to engage in civil discourse. If we speak to each other respectfully and embody the republican civility that characterized the days and debates of our Founders, our fellow Americans will be more likely to listen to us; the vitriol that poisons our political discussions will be more likely to fade away. The second proposal calls us to practice humility and acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. If we remind ourselves of our profound intellectual shortcomings, we will be more likely to listen to and work with those with whom we disagree. The third proposal—put forth consistently by Senator John McCain—calls Congress to return to regular order. Elected officials should propose legislation in committee, improve the bill via debate and compromise there, and then bring this legislation to the floor of Congress for an extended period of debate proceeded by a vote.
Each of these proposals brings us closer to reducing polarization. If we do not treat those with whom we disagree respectfully, they will neither like us nor work with us. If we do not practice humility, we will never seek compromise, nor will we benefit from the usually reasonable perspective of those who disagree with us. If our elected officials do not return Congress to regular order, Democrats and Republicans will create further tension between ideological opposites by shoving legislation down the embattled throat of the Congress, producing ephemeral laws that a new majority would seek to overturn, and failing to rise to the many challenges before us. However, none of these initiatives sufficiently broadens Americans’ thinking on the most sensitive and polarizing issues before us.
The calls politicians, pundits, and scholars have made encouraging Americans to engage in civil discourse and remember the profound limits of our knowledge fail to state why this is both necessary and urgent. Both proposals affirm human dignity by contending that every individual should be respected and heard; they posit implicitly that we must engage in civil discourse and practice humility because of this dignity and our shared citizenship in this great country. But by failing to define and state explicitly the common civic enterprise in which we are engaged, by failing to remind Americans that we share largely the same goals, these proposals do not give unwilling Americans sufficient reason to engage respectfully with or listen to those with whom they disagree. If we do not share the same goals, if we do not believe that we all want stronger communities, better schools, a more prosperous nation, or brighter futures for our children and the children of all our fellow citizens, why should we comport ourselves with civility or remember the shortcomings of our own knowledge if we so unequivocally believe that the intellectual shortcomings of those who disagree with us are even more severe?
Unlike these first two proposals, Senator John McCain’s call to return to regular order manages to articulate a common enterprise in which Americans must engage. The common enterprise to which the Senator calls us—or, more accurately, calls his fellow elected officials—is one of good governance and effective execution of the duties of the legislature. If Congress and state legislatures across the country heeded his call, federal and state governments would accomplish much more. Furthermore, this return to regular order would reduce the polarization in Congress that so often grinds much needed policy-making to a halt. But this proposal would not appreciably reduce polarization or diminish the contempt most Americans hold in their hearts for those who disagree with them. This return to regular order would not reach the “base”; it would not reduce the hate on much of the left for the “deplorable” Trump supporters on the right or reduce the scorn on the right for the increasingly liberal policies propounded by the left. If these sentiments remain unaddressed, how long will average Americans continue to elect officials who believe in regular order and compromise, and recognize the folly and irresponsibility of unflinching ideological rigidity? Not long, I suspect.
In a speech at the National Constitution Center in March of 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama proclaimed that we cannot perfect our union until we understand that “we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction: toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.” The brilliant hope that infused these words grows dimmer today. Despite his belief that we Americans hope to move in a common direction, President Obama, for reasons on which I will not speculate here, was unable to instill in the American public this unwavering sense that we have shared hopes and an abiding love for our American enterprise: perfecting our union and this flawed experiment in self-government. As polarization continues to tear at the fabric of this country and distract our elected leaders from tackling crucial issues, from health care and comprehensive immigration reform to defeating the opioid crisis and the gun epidemic, reclaiming this notion of a common civic and moral enterprise becomes our most important task.
This does not mean glossing over our many differences, thinking we must agree on everything, or buying into the blindly sanguine notion of “Let’s Get Togetherism,” as David Brooks puts it. Our politics have always been adversarial, and we should relish in the institutionalized gridlock that defends against all-too rapid or unreflective change. But it does mean articulating what makes us American, and explicitly defining those national goals toward which we must strive together. If we do this, though we may support different initiatives to achieve these goals, pray to different gods, or belong to different political parties, the differences that cripple our progress today will shrink in the face of the prodigious tasks before us and the enterprise that calls all of us. If we know that we hope to reach the same, or at least similar, ends, we can disagree without being disagreeable; we gain a formidable reason to engage in civil discourse and humbly acknowledge the limits of our knowledge; we secure for ourselves a better understanding of why we must return to regular order. Articulating this common national enterprise was never something Facebook—a social network embroiled in scandal over the proliferation of Russian propaganda and allegations of censorship of conservative perspectives—was capable of doing. Thus, polarization was never something Facebook was capable of mitigating.
No, reclaiming this notion of a common enterprise must come first from us, the people, in individual discernment and smaller conversations with those who think like us and (especially) those who do not. It must come from a vibrant national discussion on the subject, as we demand more of our politicians, historians, and authors to define precisely what makes us tick and what we hope to achieve together. We must commence this discernment, these discussions, this persistent work now, lest we allow the challenges before us to fester, worsen, and lay waste to the great progress we have made together.
(Overhead image: In front of a packed crowd at the Facebook Communities Summit, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained how the social network's meaningful communities can bring Americans together once more. Source: Facebook)