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On social media, hate against opponents sells the most

July 09, 2021
On social media, hate against opponents sells the most

ISLAMABAD: Although social media is generally perceived as a vehicle of change for “democratising public voices and spreading awareness among masses”, a new study has found that hate against the opponents sells the most on it.

However, the social media giants are reluctant to implement changes that could make these platforms less divisive. About four billion people around the world use the social media including Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is one of the primary ways to access news and political messages. In Pakistan, no study has been conducted so far to investigate the issue from this angle. Most of the research conducted was aimed to determine the positive impact of social media. A 2019 study by Pakistani researchers, for example, studied the use of social media among university graduates and found out that they became more aware than before. Their online activism translated into offline debate on political matters, it noted.

However, a latest research by psychologists from the University of Cambridge (Steve Rathje and Jay J. Van Bavel) and the New York University (Sander van der Linden) has made alarming disclosures. They suggested that hate against political opponents sells like nothing else and the social media companies are well aware of the phenomenon. To validate their argument, a Facebook study has been quoted. Researchers commissioned by Facebook warned the company in 2018 that their “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.”

This research was shut down by Facebook executives, according to a Wall Street Journal report, and it declined to implement the changes proposed by the research team to make the platform less divisive. This approach of Facebook that social media might be incentivising the spread of polarizing content has been endorsed by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who expressed concerns about the popularity of debunking (mocking one’s enemies) on the platform.

The result was not different from the study, conducted by psychologists of above-mentioned universities. They concluded that people tend to appreciate the posts where either insult is hurled at their political opponents or praise showered on their political ideals. “We found that posts about the political out-group were shared or retweeted about twice as often as posts about the in-group,” they noted. The language was the main predictor in terms of sharing.

“Language about the out-group (opponents) was a very strong predictor of “angry” reactions (the most popular reactions across all dataset), and language about the in-group (like-minded) was a strong predictor of “love” reactions, reflecting in-group favouritism and out-group derogation,” they determined. Researchers have also been examining the impact of echo chamber, an environment in which a person tends to come across or engage with people of his/ her own belief. Social media’s algorithms have capitalized on this tendency of humans.

Some scholars experimented this point and discovered that social media play a critical role in increasing polarization. They noted, for example, temporarily deactivating Facebook can reduce polarization on policy issues. But that affect is limited to the young population. The polarization among old-age people was due to other reasons as they tend not to use as much social media. It was further noted that the group identities are becoming hyper salient on social media, especially in the context of online political or moral discussions.

For example, an analysis of Twitter accounts found that people are increasingly categorizing themselves by their political identities in their Twitter bios over time, providing a public signal of their social identity,” concluded a new research. They process information in a manner that is consistent with their partisan identities, prior beliefs and motivations, a process known as motivated cognition.

The social media platforms are not fully transparent how their algorithm ranking system works. Facebook announced in a post titled “Brining people closer together” that it was changing its algorithm ranking system to value “deeper” forms of engagement such as reactions and comments. These algorithm changes made under the guise of bringing people closer together may have helped prioritize posts including out-group animosity, researchers noted.

According to a recently released American National Election Studies data, effective polarization grew particularly steeply from 2016 to 2020, reaching its highest point in 40 years. Out-party animosity, more so than in-party warmth, has also become a more powerful predictor of important behaviours such as voting behaviour and the sharing of political fake news.

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