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  • Writer's pictureZach Elwood

Social media and polarization

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Does social media play a role in amplifying our divides and increasing political polarization?


There is debate in this area, but there are many polarization experts, psychology experts, and social media experts that believe that they do. To take a few prominent examples: 


Much of the thinking around this idea has focused on specific product features, like the use of addictive UI design (as examined in the documentary The Social Dilemma), or content-recommendation algorithms that show people increasingly extreme content, or the use of private data for political advertising (as examined in the documentary The Great Hack).


But what if the focus on product features is wrong? What if the focus on product features is being largely driven by people in the tech industry who have an incentive to promote their abilities to solve these problems with their own product feature ideas?


What if this focus on product features is distracting us from something more fundamental and intrinsic about these technologies? What if internet communication, simply by speeding up and distorting our interactions, agitates us in ways that don’t have much to do with product decisions? What if putting human interactions “on speed” results in amplifying some of the darker aspects of our social psychology? 


If broadcast TV was a so-called “opiate of the masses,” might the internet, in the speed with which it works and the fractured media landscape it creates, be a sort of social amphetamine?


For more on this, see this piece of mine Inherent aspects of social media that divide and derange us.

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