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Is social media making Britain’s political debate more extreme?

Angry with the system. Shutterstock

In the fraught atmosphere gripping Britain following the killing of Jo Cox MP, there is deep concern about the tone of political debate in the country. There is no suggestion social media played a direct role in the crime, but attention has fallen on how more generally it may foment people’s anger.

Stephen Kinnock MP shared an office with Cox and the two were good friends. Following the attack he was reported as saying:

We need to think a bit about the tone of our politics and the way that politicians and the media talk to each other … and the way social media kicks in and amplifies this. It’s not a big journey from saying horrible things to doing horrible things.

Social media is often accused of providing a public space for people to say things they previously would never have said in real life (this is known as the online dishinibition effect), encouraging unrestricted harassment and abuse and a mob mentality. But social media’s role in politics is far more complicated than this because of the nature of political debate.

The adversarial communication style we see in politics today is certainly counterproductive and polarises opinions. Disagreement is great and is at the heart of democracy. But, as political scientist Susan Bickford argues, it is only by really listening to other people’s positions, not just discarding them, that the democratic process can be successful. And – as in face to face interaction among politicians or televised debates – the internet has proved so bad at enabling people to listen to each other that there are now attempts to redesign the way we communicate online to make us better listeners.

Stephen Kinnock MP has questioned social media debate. Press Association

In politics, in particular, there are several challenges to our capability for active listening. People have a proven tendency to disregard information that challenges their beliefs and positions, something known as confirmation bias. And because political, cultural and religious values are often central to our identities, a challenge to those values becomes a challenge to who we are and how we see ourselves. When someone argues against our point of view, we take it personally.

So for us to be able to really listen to others’ positions, some argue we need to be able to disentangle our personal identity from our beliefs and values. This is made even harder in a political environment where personalities are increasingly important, where a single political leader is given more and more emphasis, over and above the institutions and ideals she or he represents.

The increased personalisation of politics is amplified by traditional media, and this has implications for political engagement. For example, I recently conducted a small (as yet unpublished) study that was in line with similar research showing how personalised coverage reduces young people’s intention to participate in political action. Participants were less willing to engage in political activities such as debates, voting or volunteering when they read a news story focused an individual politician, than when they read the same story focused on a political party or the government.

Making it personal

Social media, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it fosters political engagement both on and offline. For example, in a small (unpublished) study I conducted, I found that when people used the internet to debate and comment on news online, they were also more likely to be politically active in the real world. Again, this is in line with other research in the area.

But social media also fosters polarisation. People tend to connect to like-minded people - and engage with content that reflects their pre-existing attitudes and beliefs. Social media focuses political debate even further around individuals who have active profiles on social media sites. It can effectively put a big neon target on them, attracting more personal abuse from those who disagree with them.

The recent launch of the Reclaim the Internet campaign has highlighted the amount of abuse individuals (and women in particular) are subjected to online. The issues of cyberbullying and cybermisogyny are ones that deserve serious consideration for the negative impact they can have on the recipients of such abuse.

Despite this, it’s important to remember that only a small minority of people act upon the violent and abusive tendencies they might express online. And unfortunately such trends are not unique to the social media era. There is also little if any evidence that social media abuse translates into offline abuse in otherwise non-violent individuals.

So what can we do about this? Social media users need to actively challenge online abuse and the platforms themselves need to respond effectively to reports of such abuse with proper regulation. The polarisation and personalisation of politics, however, is a much harder problem to deal with.

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