Social Media, Participation, and Attitudes: Does Social Media Drive Polarization?

Social Media, Participation, and Attitudes: Does Social Media Drive Polarization?

Justin W. Holmes (University of Northern Iowa, USA) and Ramona Sue McNeal (University of Northern Iowa, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9879-6.ch001
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A wide body of evidence shows that the American electorate has become more politically polarized in recent years. There are a wide variety of explanations for this trend, including selective exposure to ideological news sources. This trend corresponds with the increased use of social media for political discussion. There are competing theories regarding whether the spread social media exacerbates or attenuates polarization in the evaluation of political and social groups. The purpose of this chapter is to evaluate these competing claims. This topic is explored using multivariate regression analysis and individual level data from the 2012 American National Election Time Series Study. The findings suggest that social media use actually attenuates rather than drives polarization.
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Over the last several decades, there has been an apparent increase in political polarization in the United States. A variety of evidence suggests that both elites and citizens have developed more consistent ideologies, extreme issue stances, negative attitudes towards cooperation, and dislike toward political opponents that indicate a hollowing out of the political middle, and the rise of a new, more extreme and confrontational style of politics. This trend in increased political polarization in the United States has given rise to speculation among politics scientists regarding the impetus for this change. Much of the popular and scholarly concern with polarization stems from the potential consequences of increased division in American politics (Fiorina, Abrams & Pope, 2010). At the elite level, the main concern is that increased distance between the parties will lead to increased gridlock and an inability to reach consensus on legislation. The system of checks and balances in the United States creates a legislative process with a number of veto points, which requires compromise to govern. Increasingly polarized parties are unwilling to compromise with each other, leading to high stakes fights over policy, and increased threats of government shutdown. In this view, polarized parties and their disinclination to bargain lead to dysfunction because of a mismatch within the U.S. political system (Mann & Ornstein, 2012). On the other hand, party divergence may actually foster representation by drawing clearly lines between candidates and parties, which allows citizens a clearer choice. Further, polarization enhances party discipline, which may make it more likely that winning parties are able to enact their platform (Layman, Casey & Horowitz, 2006).

At the public level, the consequences of polarization are somewhat more mixed. On the negative side, it is possible that increased polarization leads to increasing citizen cynicism and distrust of government (Layman et al., 2006). Increasing polarization also seems to decrease citizen’s feelings of political efficacy, particularly for moderates (Hetherington, 2007), which has the potential to limit participation. Lastly, public polarization has led to increased hostility and outright discrimination among citizens based on political views (Iyengar & Westwood, 2014). On the other hand, a considerable body of literature demonstrates that polarization actually fosters participation. As the parties have moved apart, voter turnout has actually increased (Hetherington, 2007). Those who are polarized by their media choices are also more apt to participate (Prior, 2007; Stroud, 2012). In recent elections, the size of the engaged public, which tends to be quite polarized, has grown dramatically. The engaged public is highly motivated to participate, and features high levels of voter turnout, volunteering, political discussion, political donation, and other behaviors generally lauded in a representative democracy (Abramowitz, 2010).

The object of this chapter is to explore the role of social media in contributing to political polarization. Attributes of social media, particularly the ability it gives users to surround themselves with information they already agree with, and filter out information they disagree with, suggests that it is a likely contributor to political polarization. In examining this question, this chapter will utilize 2012 presidential election data to explore the impact of using social network sites to gather election data on political polarization. Despite predictions that social media may help contribute to the rise in political polarization among the American electorate, the findings of this study provide strong evidence across a variety of measures that using social media as a source of political information appears to decrease polarization.

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