Can Social Media Help Build Communities?

Paper by Eric Forbush and  Nicol Turner-Lee: “In June 2017, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed a new mission for Facebook, which was to “[g]ive people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” during the company’s first Community Summit. Yet, his declaration comes in the backdrop of a politically polarized America. While research has indicated that ideological polarization (the alignment and divergence of ideologies) has remained relatively unchanged, affective polarization (the degree to which Democrats and Republicans dislike each other) has skyrocketed (Gentzkow, 2016; Lelkes, 2016). This dislike for members of the opposite party may be amplified on social media platforms.
Social media have been accused of making our social networks increasingly insular, resulting in “echo chambers,” wherein individuals select information and friends who support their already held beliefs (Quattrociocchi, Scala, and Sunstein, 2016; Williams, McMurray, Kurz, and Lambert, 2015). However, the implicit message in Zuckerberg’s comments, and other leaders in this space, is that social media can provide users with a means for brokering relationships with other users that hold different values and beliefs from them. However, little is known on the extent to which social media platforms enable these opportunities.

Theories of prejudice reduction (Paluck and Green, 2009) partially explain an idealistic outcome of improved online relationships. In his seminal contact theory, Gordon Allport (1954) argued that under certain optimal conditions, all that is needed to reduce prejudice is for members of different groups to spend more time interacting with each other. However, contemporary social media platforms may not be doing enough to increase intergroup engagements, especially between politically polarized communities on issues of importance.

In this paper, we use Twitter data collected over a 20-day period, following the Day of Action for Net Neutrality on July 12, 2017. In support of a highly polarized regulatory issue, the Day of Action was organized by advocacy groups and corporations in support of an open internet, which does not discriminate against online users when accessing their preferred content. Analyzing 81,316 tweets about #netneutrality from 40,502 distinct users, we use social network analysis to develop network visualizations and conduct discrete content analysis of central tweets. Our research also divides the content by those in support and those opposed to any type of repeal of net neutrality rules by the FCC.

Our analysis of this particular issue reveals that social media is merely replicating, and potentially strengthening polarization on issues by party affiliations and online associations. Consequently, the appearance of mediators who are able to bridge online conversations or beliefs on charged issues appear to be nonexistent on both sides of the issue. Consequently, our findings suggest that social media companies may not be doing enough to bring communities together through meaningful conversations on their platforms….(More)”.