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Americans Agree: Social Media Is Divisive (But We Keep Using It) (wsj.com)
54 points by petethomas on April 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

Most of my friends (~30s-40s) openly talk about how negative their experience was with social media (interrupting family time, seeking approval / likes, losing an hour or more to endless scrolling, having to have an opinion on everything, stirring conflict between friends and family, etc.) and how they've deleted their accounts.

It was useful and novel 10+ years ago, but for traditional uses like sharing photos and messaging, SMS or Google Photos is easy enough these days.

It's been widely discussed that people who consume less news are generally happier and I'm sure that's the same with social media too.

I think most or at least a significant portion of people will remain news junkies, but a lot of people are waking up to what "news" really is after witnessing how much of it is actually "breaking news" that's hardly fact-checked or not at all. People are believing journalists less and less, yet journalists on the whole don't seem bothered enough to take action to correct their image. Having worked with journalists, a lot of them are concerned with their image; I'm just not sure that an appreciable amount will ever actually try to do something about it.

Even taking an extended break from Facebook can be beneficial. Back in 2015, I took a 9 month break and came back to it with a different set of eyes. It inoculated me to the need to constantly check my feed. I kept my profile for a long time because it served as a contact list, but the other day I decided to up and delete it. I couldn't be happier. Everyone who actually mattered is in my email contacts. There are actually people claiming "email is out", yet there's nobody I know who doesn't have an email or who doesn't respond to them. If you've got someone's email and phone number, the chances that you'll lose contact with them for good is very small. Just have the courage to reach out to them every once in a while rather than wait for others to post a photo of their dinner plate so you can "like" it to let them know you still exist. People feel special when others reach out to them, even if it's just to see how they're doing, and I know I would rather get a text from one person saying "s'up?" than a bunch of "likes".

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Places like HN, Reddit, Discord, etc., are all far more social than what people dub "social media".

I walked by a tv at work, and CNN was scrolling "BREAKING NEWS", with Trump talking, and I thought "What has he broken this time?"

But I don't think the current distrust of media is about the inaccuracy of journalism. "Breaking news" isn't fully investigated at the moment because it's breaking news. We'll learn why the plane crashed later; we don't need to wait until the root cause analysis is done to tell people a plane crashed.

Rather, the distrust of media is being fueled by the tendency to live in online echo chambers that reinforce preconceptions and ideology. When news happens that doesn't fit our echo-chamber worldview, it gets dubbed "fake news". And, since none of us are always right, sooner or later news is going to happen that contradicts our beliefs. We can adjust our beliefs about the message, or we can adjust our beliefs about the messenger. People choose the latter, because they're self-centered fools. Yes, even us.

Clever politicians have really learned to play this. "You can't trust the media, but you can trust me" turns into a systematic enforcement of blind loyalty. This isn't about any one figure - I see it happening on both the right and the left. Reality gets rejected by command of King Echo.

I'm mid-30s and deleted my Facebook a couple years ago. Although most of my friends and family sympathize with my reasoning, very few have followed in my footsteps. I find that mildly depression.

I'm trying to stay away from the social networks, but somehow our local running club decided that Facebook is the best way to communicate with external world.

True, that's one complaint I still hear about quitting is that a lot of events and groups are still managed on Facebook.

I haven't yet deleted facebook, but I only access it from home computer once or twice a week, and as a result I miss some events because my friends keep sending me messages via facebook messanger even though I have post at the top of my page saying I'm not actively use facebook and ask them to use literally any other messaging platforms.

The current state of social media is a symptom; it's a mirror. To blame the mirror for who and what is staring into it doesn't help solve the problem(s). True, social media (as it stands today) is an enabler. It helps the symptoms (e.g., confirmation bias) exists and persist, but ultimately it's still not the tools' fault.

In the USA, I'd be more ready to place more blame on the binary political parties, as well as the mainstream media. The internet will eventually greatly reduce the power and influence of all three of these. What we're witnessing now first-hand is these three power-holders collapsing and screaming "But...But...we're still very relevant. Look! Look!! You need us to protect you from 'them'" (with 'them' being one of the other power-losing enties). All three have become terribly efficient at using hype, hyperbole and divisiveness as means to "proving" they still matter.

For more info on these concepts see "The Influential Mind" by Tali Sharot.


While she doesn't do a direct take down of media, social media and politics, it doesn't take a genius to read between the lines a bit and extrapolate her science onto the current state of things.

==The current state of social media is a symptom; it's a mirror. ==

This is true, but its worth acknowledging that these apps are purposefully built to be addictive [1]. Things like endless scroll, pull to refresh, like buttons, gamification, and more have been developed to make that mirror more psychologically compulsive.

[1] https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/trapped-the-s...

Addiction is a problem, kinda. But it's not as big a problem as what happens when those over-connected minds are so happy to pursue confirmation bias, echo chambers, etc. __That__ is likely what many people are more addicted to. That is, for example, "I'm so great! Look how correct I am. Again!!!" Who doesn't love that feedback loop?

And doesn't that described the major of people on social media? They don't understand cause v correlation. They don't understand subjective v objective.

I think what you are describing IS the addiction.

Right. But people aren't addicted to the apps per se, they're addicted to themselves. So taking away the apps might temporarily slow down the disease, but that's still not a cure.

Quitting drinking isn't a cure for alcoholism, either. But the problem isn't the alcoholism, it's the alcohol.

Getting off of social media didn't make me a better person, but social media definitely made me a worse person. As I mentioned elsewhere, I jumped from reading two books a month to six. Those extra four books a month are making me a lot happier than the equivalent amount of cat videos and fighting with my fellow Democrats about which of our candidates sucks the least. The additional time playing guitar is making me a better guitarist, something I should value a lot more than snopesing the latest political quote meme. Going to bed earlier is better for my health than staying up another hour endlessly scrolling because I'm too tired to stop.

Alcoholics don't stop being alcoholics, but they can stop drinking, and stop subjecting themselves to the countless problems alcohol was creating for them. That's how I feel about Facebook. It created real problems for me, and when I quit, those problems have gone down.

Maybe. Fortnite is addictive in it's own, less self-obsessed way. Not sure which is healthier.

I'd say Fortnite is less unhealthy. My thought being, confirmation bias / echo chamber is relatively less real than Fortnite, but not realized as such. That's proving to be very dangerous to all of us.

Isn't the flat earth phenomena interesting? It's clear that almost nobody believes this, probably including many of those who claim they do. Nonetheless there seems to be relatively large numbers of people who at least claim to do so. Strange isn't it? Not really. In a connected world you can get your message out to millions of people with greater than ever ease. If 99.9% of people do not agree with you, that means 0.1% do. And that's literally millions of people!

Most people consciously think they would prefer to associate with people they "identify" with. In real life you don't have much in the way of signaling so this process was not especially efficient. And that was a great thing. It meant people who had completely different worldviews would end up becoming friends, and having some fun if not heated debates at times. And most importantly they also kept each other tethered to reality. Enter social media. Now, no matter how extreme a group you "identify" with, you can find millions of people fitting that. And people utilize this to filter people down to just these people.

But this filtering now tends to drive divisiveness in two big ways. The first is that as people lose contact with those they do not "identify" with, it creates a dehumanization. The other issue is the even bigger one, and also contributes heavily to the first -- people lose touch with reality. Imagine the answer to a problem is 0. You have one group that insists it's at least 20, and another that insists it's at most -20. Now all the 20+ guys join together. And now thinking it's 25 is really kind of moderate - literally nobody thinks it's less than 20 and lots of people even think it might be in the 30s, or higher! Their collective starts going further and further up. Next thing you know the average is 30, then 40, then ... And vice versa for the other group. This likely a similar process to how you get from 'dress modestly' to 'wear opaque black sacks that cover everything including the eyes.' It's a homogeneous collective raging on in who can be more virtuous (by the standards of the collective) without any sort of counter-balancing force going "I LOVE BIKINIS! Live free and natural. Nude beaches are what we need!"

But the key point of this all is that this filtering would be impossible without social media. I completely agree that the media is contributing heavily to this, as well as politicians, especially those who play into identity politics. But on the other hand, I think their behavior is arguably more of an effect than a cause. In a divided world, the way you make money with things such as media is not by walking the line, it's by jumping off the deep end one way or the other. And similarly for politicians. People actually get angry when people in any way work with "the other side." Consider the outrage that Musk would dare work on a presidential advisory board where he would actually have a voice that'd go straight to the president.

I have no idea why this comment is getting downvoted. It's spot-on!

I would add one thing, though... in the days before social media, but also before near-instant transportation and tv and stuff, people lived in geographically isolated communities. While there wasn't cultural self-selection, your culture was selected for you, and almost everyone you knew was like you.

This is reflected in politics as well. Urban areas are necessarily more socially diverse than rural areas. If you live in a big city, you rub elbows with people different from you every day. You learn to be tolerant and respectful of social diversity just for your own sanity. Homogeneous rural communities don't learn tolerance, because they don't need it, and it's arguably a hindrance. So we wind up with socially tolerant, diverse liberals, and socially intolerant, monoculture conservatives (not passing a judgment here). It's a result, not a cause.

Social media exacerbates both these tendencies... on one hand, it's so easy to build purist echo chambers, which lead to holier than thou political one-upmanship and drive extremist views. On the other hand, we're constantly exposed to people wildly different to us through friends-of-friends. That's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Rather than leading to more tolerance, it's leading to uglier forms of intolerance.

>> place more blame on the binary political parties, as well as the mainstream media.

Those are also just different mirrors. Social media is a greater number of faster-responding mirrors, but the concept remains the same: the content reflects the desires of the audience.

I place all the blame on individual users. They are the ones that must alter their behavior. Each individual must come to understand how they manipulate the content they see. I don't blame talk radio and facebook for turning my aunt into a crazed right-wing conspiracy theorist (the really bad type. She believed pizzagate, probably still does.) She has done this to herself and only she can dig herself out of the hole. The family can support her, as one would any other addict, but the individual must want to change.

Agreed. User need to be more responsible. 100%!

That said, that should not let leadership off the hook. For those three mentioned leaders to abuse their power __at all costs__ in order to maintain their power can not and should not be discounted.

In March, I quit using Facebook cold turkey, for a variety of reasons. During March, I read six books. I normally read about two books a month.

Was I really reading four books a month worth of Facebook? Quite possibly.

I recommend reading Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism for a solid basis on how to deal with social media - where it's necessary, where it's okay, and where it's actively harmful. I also recommend reading Gary Rogowski's Handmade: Creative Focus in an Age of Distraction, which isn't so much about getting off social media as what your life can look like when you're not on it in the first place.

I'm fairly sure I've written a book's worth of HN comments. I've seriously considered trying to extract the top-rated ones and weave them into a book.

I've turned Facebook posts and comments into blog entries on Medium. There's much to be said for the low-key, low pressure feel of such writing. Plus, I'm really inspired by responding to the thoughts of others (or having my own perceptions questioned and altered).

That said, it's such an attention suck that it's absolutely not worth it for me. I'm finding I'm happier when I stay off. And I'm just wrapping up a two-year project (producing a concept album!), so I've decided to not take on any of the projects waiting in the wings, and just try living for a bit without most social media or any big projects, and see what that's like.

Many of my blog posts started out as HN comments. I find it stimulates me to write things in a way that staring at an empty Emacs buffer doesn't.

I loved Paul Buccheit’s (of YC) quote on social media:

“[Twitter] is like a game where you get 1 point for being fair and thoughtful and 1000 points for character assassination.”


(He said it about Twitter, but I think the spirit was about social media generally)

Paul also helped brainstorm “Don’t Be Evil” at an early Google.

Personally, I don’t blame the media alone (as some in this thread do). All of us are a product of the incentives we face, and feed algorithms play a huge role (including for the journalists at media outlets).

And as always, I will shill my media literacy guide (there’s also a version for software engineers):



I have Facebook and Twitter - I dont really use either, I might spend an hour a week interacting with facebook, and an hour a quarter with Twitter. Twitter is full of angry people trying to one up each other, and FB is full of falsehoods circulated like chain letters. Both have little use for me.

Personally I think social media is being misblamed as an easy scapegoat. It does have its problems with privacy, mob mentalities, and impulse control but it didn't start the fire or even accelerate it much - it is a preexisting condition worsening over time period.

Before the misinformation there were chain letters and plenty of stupid moral panics. Division has always been with us - it just makes it more obvious.

Twitter and Facebook in 2019 are both dumpster fires, but they aren't the totality of social media. Before (and concurrent to) them we had Friendster, Myspace, Orkut, and a plethora of hybrid services that have social networking features.

Facebook and Twitter (1) optimize for mobile, where expressing complex thought is difficult, (2) perform relentless A/B engagement testing seemingly without accounting for the fact that people engage with things that make them unhappy, and (3) have a huge news/media presence. I think all these elements and probably more contributed to the cancer these services have become.

I think social media is a tipping point for a lot of basic human behavior - a threshold has been crossed. Sure, it's just amplifying normal human behavior, but so does cocaine. (Remember the wise words of Bill Cosby here... he asked someone to explain the appeal of cocaine, and they said "It intensifies your personality". He said "But what if you're an asshole?")

Imagine if in 1993 someone proposed that the majority of web usage, i.e. the hours spent, would occur on one website.

Imagine no need for email; all communications could be published on and retrieved from a single website.

All eyeballs on the same website, not simply as a starting point or "portal", but as a destination. Even more, the website produces no content. It is all contributed by users.

Wasn’t that AOL. Email, instant messenger, profiles, chat rooms all in one place where everyone spent countless hours?

You could say it was a starting point/portal...but where else was anyone going back then to spend significant time?

Yes. In retrospect we could argue eventually those people discovered the "open web" but with Facebook it is deja vu.

Sounds like a BBS.

I was actively involved in the BBS scene back in the mid-1990s. It had most of the same problems Facebook/Twitter does today - and the same attractions, albeit not as refined.

Unfortunately, it's taken me 25 years to recognize the toxicity to the point of quitting.

The tipping point was the mobile device. Now instead of getting an (unhealthy) dose of confirmation bias once per morning and/or once per evening, now you get it all day, every day. The more people confirm their bias the less likely objectivity is to "leak" into their echo chamber.

I think "objectivity" is bullshit, but echo chambers and confirmation bias are a big problem. Then again, politics aren't the only problem with online addiction - they're not even the biggest problem, imho.

I do think your point about mobile devices is spot-on, though. I was asking myself why I don't mind HN while I avoid FB and Twitter, and the fact that I don't use it on my phone may be a big part of that. Cal Newport gives this advice as part of Digital Minimalism as well... restrict your social media to real computers only, and absolutely avoid any phone apps.

The original article mentioned divisive. I think politics is the key driver to that, with the mainstream media being a willing and active enabler of division.

Yeah, but it also says we won't quit, even though we all know it's divisive. That's because it's also addictive. And that addiction also affects people who pointedly avoid engaging in politics at all online.

The ability to create your own echo chamber is contributing to divisive politics, yes. But that's not the media... that's self-selection. We tend to be friends with people like ourselves culturally. And we wind up unfriending/blocking (or at least muting) people whose politics and lives make our blood boil, out of self-defense. The media isn't actively enabling this... we are.

My own social life is mostly around the Minneapolis performing arts community - my friends are either active participants in or fans of local music, theater, and dance. So it's a bunch of educated upper-midwest liberals. That's a formula for political echo chamber, but it's not because the media is manipulating me! Likewise, I have a childhood friend who runs a Harley-Davidson shop in rural Pennsylvania. His right-wing politics are an echo chamber made up of his social life of bikers and rural white people. He's not a victim of the media. He just lives a different life than me.

"He's not a victim of the media."

I don't agree. The (news) media is misleading, if not deceptive, in how it presents itself. The major of the time it's not news per se, but shit that will draw the most eyeballs and attract the most attention, etc. Even for the casual observer it's easy to get sucked into that vortex.

Fake news is not simply a matter of truth or not. It's also about importance and relevance. For example, I took a dump this morning. That's a fact. But that doesn't make it news. So any any given moment, the news isn't pushing news, it's pushing - like everything else - increased engagement.

Intended or not, active participants or not, we are all victims of that because it manipulates broader perceptions, agendas, etc.

Humans are social animals. It's fun to connect with people about positive things.

There was always some discussion about a "dislike" button on Facebook. That always confused me. I have NO INTEREST in what people don't like. I want to hear about what they're doing that is positive.

The problem is that the kind of game-ified simulacrum of socialization that social media often is doesn't promote connecting with people at all. Indeed, it seems to me that very few things in contemporary society do.

I guess it depends on what kind of socialization we're talking about.

Just surfing someone else's photos is enough for me as far as what social media provides. That's not the start and end of all socialization, but it is nice.

Its not social media!

Social media has a lot of issues that really need to be discussed in public but technology has no morals. Facebook dot com isn't divisive: its USERS are. Before social media you didn't have a deep view into their neighbors thoughts and feelings. Now, we have a slightly deeper one and (shock and surprise!) we find out that a social taboo on discussing serious issues in casual company didn't lead to those issues being resolved, we simply ignored them while people none of us like made all the decisions for us.

You're ignoring the fact that "Facebook dot com" isn't just used by those with a Facebook account; it is also used by Facebook-the-company and its customers (advertisers, propagandists, etc.) against those with a Facebook account (in order to extract revenue). This leads to things like "optimising for engagement", and outrage turns out to be highly engaging and easy to produce.

I dunno I think my comment was inclusive of the notion that facebook profits off of (i.e.: its users include) propagandists and other bad actors.

Are there any "think before you speak" browser extensions out there? Thinking of doing a hackathon project that analyzes a comment in a comment box before you post...

I need this for emails as well. Clippy: Looks like you're trying to send an angry email, would you like to save it as a draft and read it when you're thinking straight?

Yes, for sure for work...would let you know the tone of your email...angry/passive aggressive/etc etc

Americans agree politics is divisive. Americans agree news is divisive. Americans agree sports is divisive. But we all still consume it.

I don't get the point of the article. People are divisive. Water is wet and anything having to do with people is divisive.

How many of these "social media bad" articles are we really going to get from the news industry? It's getting to be annoying, boring and exhausting. If social media is so bad, why is the WSJ and the rest of the media trying to force their way onto social media platforms? If these journalists are right and social media is so bad, why are journalists so prominent on twitter and much of social media?

If you want divisive, go check out the WSJ and NYTimes comment sections. Yet a lot of people consume products from WSJ and NYTimes.

What's the answer? No media altogether or force people to think alike?

But in your comment, you just question everything without giving degree to which things are affected.

I believe these statement give better feeling about the proportionality of each media source:

Yes journalists are sometimes wrong, but most of the time they do their best to research a subject.

Don't go to comment section unless you want to loose your faith in humanity, there are some insights there sometimes but most of the time comment section is just full of angry people. (The Atlantic removed comment section altogether).

Social media (Facebook, twitter and the like) thrive on divisiveness, sensationalism and appealing to gut instinct rather then exploring any kind of intellectual idea. That is what platforms are made for, with the system of how things get promoted, shared and rewarded -- counting engagement instead of value to individuals and society.

Guess where all the advertising dollars go in this case, papers are loosing money because any kind of attempt to examine ideas is a lot less interesting for the advertisers because all they want pay money for is engagement.

I think of how many people read one of Ta-Nehisi Coates' exquisitely researched, half-hour-long read articles at the Atlantic, vs how many people click on a video of a cat falling off a dresser or something. Sigh.

==How many of these "social media bad" articles are we really going to get from the news industry?==

How many dieting articles are written by the news industry?

==If these journalists are right and social media is so bad, why are journalists so prominent on twitter and much of social media?==

Because they have to be to make money, that doesn't help answer the question of whether or not they are bad themselves. There is a difference between a corporation (profit-seeking entity) and an individual (happiness-seeking entity). It makes sense that they may have different views on what is good/bad.

If you look at journalists’ social media accounts you’ll see that it’s not about making money but it is about in-group signaling and being extremely obnoxious. They tend to tweet a lot and engage in the worst behavior. Blue check mark Twitter is the most toxic Twitter.

I view them as individuals who are falling prey to the same negative effects that social media has on the broader population.

They are much worse than the general population though. I don’t know if that’s because they are somewhat able to leverage their employers to build very large followings, thus have amplified experiences or if journalism attracts attention seekers. Probably a bit of both.

A common refrain is that they rant against technology a lot. Which is ironic considering where they are doing it.

>No media altogether or force people to think alike?

I'd say media already tries (and succeeds for a lot of things) to make people think alike

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