The US is more politically divided than other Western democracies — and it shows on social media

May 16, 2021
Social media behavior reflects the huge political rifts in the U.S. (Pexels/Brett Sayles)

Social media behavior reflects the huge political rifts in the U.S. (Pexels/Brett Sayles)

Politically fueled avoidance behaviors on social media are more pronounced in the U.S. than in the U.K. or France, according to a new study that examined how discussion styles and ideological extremity trigger unfriending and content removal on social media. 

Based on data from three online panel surveys conducted in France, the U.K. and the U.S., the study, published April 13 in Social Science Computer Review, found that people in the U.S. were the most likely to cut virtual ties over political differences, with 29.75% of U.S. respondents reporting that they unfriended or unfollowed someone for political reasons. Similarly, U.S. respondents were most likely to hide content, with 24.59% saying they had hidden content for political reasons.

"U.S. politics has completely captured the society," Marko M. Skoric, the lead author of the paper and associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told The Academic Times. "So, one of the themes that we see here is this U.S. 'exceptionalism' in terms of, I would say, the dominance of politics all over, even in ordinary life." 

Indeed, political divisiveness is rampant in the U.S. today, with previous research showing that Americans are losing faith in each other and that they live in 'high isolation' from partisan rivals, driving political polarization and mistrust.  

On social media, individuals may be exposed to a broad variety of political views, but they take "active steps to shield themselves from dissonant speech and its sources," according to Skoric and his colleagues. This includes avoiding undesirable content, information and people by unfriending, unfollowing, muting and hiding content across an array of social media platforms.

The researchers used three online panel surveys conducted by Kantar Group, with approximately 1,500 respondents each for the U.K., U.S. and France. The samples were nationally representative for each country, including on the basis of gender, age, region, income and social class and education. 

The U.S. had the largest percentage of respondents reporting they had cut ties with others or had hidden content because of politics, followed by the U.K., where 16.97% of respondents reported unfriending/unfollowing and 11.82% reported hiding content. France had the lowest rates, with 11.73% reporting unfriending/unfollowing and 12.87% reporting hiding content. 

Confrontational discussion style — a discussion style marked by aggressive verbal attacks and ridicule often geared toward others on a personal level when engaging in an argument — was found in all countries to be a significant predictor of selective avoidance behaviors, and it had a stronger relationship with the behavior of hiding content on social media. 

Likewise, political-ideological extremity contributed to unfriending and unfollowing, but only in the U.S. Ideological extremity was not associated with hiding content. 

The last variable that the researchers examined was crosscutting discussion — discussions where an individual engages with "disagreeing and/or different others," according to the study. In the context of this research, crosscutting discussions were limited to political conversations where the "other" has different political views than the individual in question. 

Crosscutting discussion was significantly and positively associated with unfriending and unfollowing in all three countries, and this did not vary significantly between them. This result is in line with extensive prior literature showing that crosscutting exposure tends to push people, especially those with strong political convictions, to actively seek out information that confirms their preexisting beliefs.

Thus, when crosscutting interactions occur, it tends to further reinforce in-group attachment. Within the context of social media, it seems to trigger an affective response where individuals turn to unfriending and unfollowing in order to reestablish meaningful social context and reinforce attachment to their perceived group. 

In light of these findings, the researchers posit that, "In a more polarized society such as the United States, the engagement with political opponents does not lead to the removal of specific content but rather relationship termination and suspension that filters out someone's views and activities completely, as it triggers social identity–based dislike for opponents rather than ideological dissonance." 

Skoric said that in the physical world, a person can only avoid unpleasantness, discomfort and contradictory views to a certain degree, such as with a car or gated community. But in the digital world, he said, a person has "absolute possibility to shut down everything and shut off everyone you don't want to hear about."

And so, these selective avoidance behaviors to some extent "signal a desire for greater social distance from those whose political orientations are different from one's own," the researchers wrote. This may lead to less densely connected citizen networks, which Skoric and his colleagues wrote is particularly troubling for minorities, "who would be more likely to be excluded from the political mainstream."

However, the researchers suggest there may be a positive alternative reason for selective avoidance behaviors: Maybe people are trying to preserve offline relationships and uphold a positive image of peers, friends, coworkers and neighbors by limiting exposure to "online disagreement, vitriol and incivility."

In this sense, Skoric and his colleagues wrote, it's not about division, but a practice aimed at "preserving social harmony, which may be particularly vital during the times of heightened political conflict."

The study "Selective avoidance on social media: A comparative study of Western democracies," published April 13 in Social Science Computer Review, was co-authored by Marko M. Skoric, City University of Hong Kong; Qinfeng Zhu, University of Groningen; Karolina Koc-Michalska,  Audencia Business School and University of Silesia; Shelley Boulianne,  MacEwan University; and Bruce Bimber, University of California.

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