Research Highlights

Fueling the Fire: How Social Media Intensifies U.S. Political Polarization — And What Can Be Done About It

Fueling the Fire: How Social Media Intensifies U.S. Political Polarization — And What Can Be Done About It

A new report from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights concludes that social media platforms are not the main cause of rising partisan animosity, but use of these platforms intensifies divisiveness and thus contributes to its corrosive effects.

A new report from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights concludes that social media platforms are not the main cause of rising partisan animosity, but use of these platforms intensifies divisiveness and thus contributes to its corrosive effects.

Some critics of the social media industry contend that widespread use of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has contributed to increased political polarization in the United States. But Facebook, the largest social media platform, has disputed this contention, saying that it is unsupported by social science research. Determining whether social media plays a role in worsening partisan animosity is important because political polarization has pernicious consequences. 

In the U.S., where partisan divisiveness has reached new extremes, these consequences include declining trust in fellow citizens and major institutions; erosion of democratic norms like respect for elections; loss of faith in the existence of commonly held facts; and political violence.

A new report from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, “Fueling the Fire: How Social Media Intensifies U.S. Political Polarization — And What Can Be Done About It” analyzes the evidence bearing on social media’s role in polarization, assesses the effects of severe divisiveness, and recommends steps the government and the social media industry can take to ameliorate the problem. The report concludes that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not the original or main cause of rising U.S. political polarization, a phenomenon that long predates the social media industry. But use of those platforms intensifies divisiveness and thus contributes to its corrosive consequences.

Authored by Paul Barrett, Center for Business and Human Rights deputy director and senior research scholar; Justin Hendrix, associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering; and J. Grant Sims, Center for Business and Human Rights research scholar, the report offers recommendations for diminishing the degree to which social media heightens affective polarization, including: 

To the federal government: 
  • President Biden needs to prioritize a broad government response to the heightening of partisan hatred by social media.
  • The House Select Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection should devote ample resources to determining how technology was used to incite the violence on January 6.
  • Lawmakers ought to pass legislation mandating more disclosure about the inner workings of social media platforms.
  • Congress should empower the Federal Trade Commission to draft and enforce new standards for industry conduct.
  • While they grapple with social media as it now exists, legislators need to encourage exploration of alternatives to current business models.

To the platforms: 
  • Social media companies should adjust algorithms to depolarize platforms more systematically.
  • But depolarization must take place transparently.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should each double the size of their human content-moderation corps and make moderators full-fledged employees.
  • The industry needs to strengthen engagement with civil society groups that can help identify sources of dis- and misinformation related to elections, public health, and patterns of discrimination.
  • The platforms should reduce rewards for virality, which can contribute to polarization.
Read the full report on the Center’s website here