Does Social Media Silence Debate?

Liberals, conservatives, and shutting up.

A recent New York Times article explored recent survey data that led researchers to some thought-provoking conclusions about social media’s effect on civic discourse. It’s pretty common knowledge by now that people tend to surround themselves with people who agree with them on things. Conservatives and liberals tend to want to live in different kinds of places (75% of consistent conservatives want to live in suburbs or the country, 77% of consistent liberals the city), and they more consistently say most of their friends share their views. That’s on top, of course, of the childhood instinct to gravitate towards people like me.

But how does social media interact with this situation? Does it make it better? Worse? Here’s what this recent research found:

  • People are less likely to voice opinions when they think their views differ from those of their friends. Since their feeds are dominated by people they like, find interesting, or tend to agree with, social media can intensify this tendency and keep dissenters quiet. In fact, people who use social media regularly are less likely to express differing views in the offline world.
  • No politics at the dinner table? Social media is like the dinner table, only more so. Most people said they would be more willing to discuss something controversial at dinner or at work than on social media.
  • Educated people and thoughtful people are quieting down. People with more education are less likely to weigh in on a Facebook debate, as are people with moderate views. People with less education, and people with more fervent or extreme views, dominate the debate.

So it would seem social media is indeed providing a liturgy for our lives, a set of repetitive habits (shaped by algorithms) that affects how we think and act even offline.

What do we do about this? How can we make sure our online habits are having a positive effect on our social interactions and our political discourse?

I recommend two articles to help you start thinking:

Brian Brown

Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

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