Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Polarization, the Township, and Social Media

Deprived of neighborhoods, hooked on Twitter, it's no wonder we rage at others.

Key points

  • The destruction of community deprives us of any need to get along with those with whom we don't agree.
  • Spending most of our waking life watching a screen—especially social media—exacerbates the isolation of the American individual.
  • As the growth imperative of social media relies on boosting inflammatory posts, polarization begets further polarization.
copyright Fumiste Studios, used by permission
Source: copyright Fumiste Studios, used by permission

The previous post in “Shut Up and Listen” attributed polarization in the U.S., at least in part, to a surge in amygdala-based fight-or-flight response and a decrease in hippocampus-based curiosity or empathy. But this only kicks the can of causality further down the road.

What event or environmental change was responsible for such a response in the first place?

One answer might be the erosion of social structures that once gave us the opportunity, even the requirement, to interact—and get along—with people we wouldn’t normally frequent or even know. The disappearance of whole strata of social interaction: stable neighborhoods, local shops, and community activities such as bowling and neighborhood dances due to both television and mass marketing has been well-documented: for example, in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone.

A quote from Boston University researcher Mark Dunkelman on this subject, in reference to his 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, is worth including here. After noting that Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 book Democracy in America, saw that American exceptionalism was rooted in townships based on “bottom-up,” grassroots communities, he continues: “Communities have been replaced with networks in which you keep in touch with only your closest friends and family; gone is the age of the township.”

Dunkelman goes on to explain that for all of America’s history, its “core social building block”—the above-mentioned township—survived and evolved from 18th-century villages to 19th-century frontier towns to city tenements to small suburbs. In such townships, he continues, “Americans, even if they didn’t like their neighbors, they understood them.” Whereas now “voters, because they haven’t interacted as much with people who are different, through those relationships, are less willing to [look for] compromise.”

There’s another underlying cause.

Americans now spend almost half their waking hours, 7 hours and 4 minutes, watching a screen. Researchers have found what would seem obvious to be true: This amount of screen time decreases person-to-person interaction. Social media platforms, in particular, have not only contributed to such a decrease, but they have been associated with a spike in aggressive- or fear-based behavior online.

In fact, the very architecture of social media, such as YouTube and Facebook, works to promote dramatic or inflammatory content as opposed to more conciliatory or thoughtful posts. This can be understood intuitively, based on our own experience, in the sense that dramatic or aggressive content—“Joe is a damn liar!”—will catch our attention more quickly and emotionally than “I’ve been looking up research on the possible origins of Joe’s behavior.”

This is especially true given that the average attention span in the U.S. has decreased markedly since the early 2000s, naturally prompting us to spend our limited attention credit on whatever is most exciting. Put another way: “Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention, and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly,” according to Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development, cited in The Guardian.

But the process also happens technically through a tool known as “engagement,” whereby the platform algorithm—the study cited here analyzed Facebook and YouTube­—essentially weighs the intensity of reaction as measured by time spent on a given post and the number of “shares” it generates. Thus, “Joe is a damn liar!”, which already catches the eye due to its pithy and inflammatory nature, will be “shared” more often than its more thoughtful alternative version; and the very fact that it’s shared more often will cue the platform’s algorithm to accord it yet more prominence in the recipient’s “feed,” making it even more likely she or he will share it in turn. In the words of the researchers:

“Social media technology employs popularity-based algorithms that tailor content to maximize user engagement,” according to the co-authors of a 2020 research paper, quoted in a report from NYU’s Stern School. Maximizing engagement increases affective polarization, “especially within homogeneous networks” or groupings of like-thinking users. This is “in part because of the contagious power of content that elicits sectarian fear or indignation.”

So there you have it. Citizen X, even if s/he is married with kids, usually lives alone or silo-ed within the nuclear family instead of taking part in the life of a township or neighborhood where s/he must interact and cooperate as a matter of course with people from backgrounds different from X’s own. What is more, X, like an average American, spends near-half of his or her waking time on the screen and much of that time on social media—the same social media that actively promotes angry polarized messages. Is it any wonder that X is going to start reacting aggressively to what s/he sees as aggressive messages concerning her or his deeply held (if often misinformed) beliefs?

Is it any wonder that where X goes, the nation follows?

More from George Michelsen Foy
More from Psychology Today
More from George Michelsen Foy
More from Psychology Today