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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

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Shifting the social media blame

Are social media end users truly to blame for the polarized political climate online?

Blaming social media for modern partisanship has become a reflexive habit. From old and young, opinions about social media use as it pertains to the political conversation are predominantly negative — and rightly so.

Social media provides a veil of anonymity and a feeling of disconnection for users. As a result, hateful language and personal attacks abound in the political conversations that occur on Facebook, Instagram, X, TikTok, etc. But this is not novel information. In fact, per Pew Research, 64% of Americans agree that social media has a “mostly negative” effect on modern political discourse.

Yet, my proposition is, whether they know it or not, that 64% of Americans are actually more irked by the way social media is used as a news source than they are by the behavior of end users on the platform.

While it seems that the most polarized and shrill voices dominate the political conversation online, I believe that this is actually a secondary cause — rather than the primary — of the negative American sentiment towards politics and social media. Rather, the utilization of social media by news media platforms and news aggregators is actually the primary issue. The arguments and political hatred spewed by average users — which are often the target of those critiquing the relationship of social media and politics — directly result from the way modern political news is produced and consumed via social media.

I encourage you to think about precisely where hateful political conversations occur on social media. To me, it seems that most take place in the comments or threads associated with a primary political post made by a news media outlet account or news aggregator. The conversation among sub-posters and commenters is often devoid of evidence and emotionally charged. I am proposing that the true offender in this situation is actually the original poster — the account belonging to a news outlet — not those arguing in the comments.

From 2020 through 2023, the amount of Americans who claimed they “sometimes” or “often” consumed news through social media consistently sat between 48% and 53%, according to Pew Research. This suggests that roughly half of modern Americans are entering the political conversation with news that was originally posted to a public social media site.

An examination of the way in which news is posted to social media is thus necessary. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behaviour last year concluded that negative words utilized in social media headlines increased engagement whereas positive words decreased engagement. Specially, each negative word contained in a news headline increased the end user click rate by about 2.3%.

It follows then that news media outlets are incentivized to frame news in a negative manner. But this too likely seems obvious to the reader as this seemingly is the case in all modern news, regardless of the medium.

The difference here is that social media constrains the content of the post. X has a 280-character limit. Instagram allows, at most, 10 images using its carousel feature. Facebook and TikTok have more liberal allowances but posts generally are around 40-80 characters and 40 seconds, respectively.

Combining these two factors, original news posters and news aggregators alike are most likely to make a relatively concise post (think non-detailed, lacking facts) that employs several negative words if they are trying to drive engagement — the inferred end goal of a news outlet’s presence on social media.

This fact sets the tone of the proceeding conversation. As was previously mentioned, that conversation is often found in the sub-posts related to the original news-providing image or text. As a result, end users are consuming a concise headline filled with negative language and then immediately taking to the comments to join the political conversation. These users are effectively primed with negativity and equipped with minimal facts upon entry into the dialogue surrounding the issue at hand. It is no wonder that they are then highly likely to argue and spew bitter partisan views.

While social media users who choose to enter the political conversation are certainly culpable for the comments that they make online, I believe that their comments represent a secondary cause of the shrill and hateful political conversation that takes place in the digital world. Too often do news sources themselves — and the platforms they post on — escape blame for the behavior of those they influence. Constraints placed on media length and negativity for the sake of engagement reveal themselves as the key factors that are more chiefly responsible for setting the stage for a negative conversation among social media users than the users themselves.

It would be irresponsible on my part, though, to suggest that those spewing hatred and vitriol in political conversations on social media and further polarizing our country should remain blameless. Let me be clear: you are responsible for what you post online.

My point is not to remove blame from end users but to reshape the narrative and tone of the conversation surrounding social media and politics. In my eyes, to solve the nasty political climate on social media, one must first solve the way in which news media outlets utilize social media. This starts with manipulating incentives such that negativity is not a virtue for news posters as well as potentially granting a character count waiver to accredited news outlets on social media (or even mandating a minimum post length to encourage more detailed, fact-based news stories).

Regardless, when one blames social media for bitter partisanship in the future, they are certainly right to blame the end users. Yet, they should also blame the news outlets and social media platforms themselves as much as, if not more than, the users.

Editor’s Note: Cade Czarnecki is a researcher for From the Archives.

Cade Czarnecki is a second-year student living in Fisher Hall studying political science and economics. He currently serves as director of publications for BridgeND.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues. You can contact BridgeND at


BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.