Social media networks, which often foster partisan antagonism, may also offer a solution to reducing political polarisation, according to a US study. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in the US asked 2,400 Republicans and Democrats to interpret recent climate-change data on Arctic sea-ice levels. Initially, nearly 40 per cent of Republicans incorrectly interpreted the data, saying that Arctic sea-ice levels were increasing; 26 per cent of Democrats made the same mistake, according to the study published in the journal PNAS.
However, after participants interacted in anonymous social media networks — sharing opinions about the data and its meaning for future levels of Artic sea ice — 88 per cent of Republicans and 86 per cent of Democrats correctly analysed it, agreeing that sea-ice levels were dropping. Republicans and Democrats who were not permitted to interact with each other in social media networks but instead had several additional minutes to reflect on the climate data before updating their responses remained highly polarised and offered significantly less accurate forecasts.
“New scientific information does not change people’s minds. They can always interpret it to match their beliefs,” said Damon Centola from the University of Pennsylvania.”But, if you allow people to interact with each other in egalitarian social networks, in which no individual is more powerful than another, we find remarkably strong effects of bipartisan social learning on eliminating polarization,” Centola said.
To test this notion for politically charged topics like climate change, researchers constructed an experimental social media platform, which they used to test how different kinds of social media environments would affect political polarisation and group accuracy. “Conservatives in particular were susceptible to this misinterpretation,” said Penn doctoral student Douglas Guilbeault.
The researchers randomly assigned participants to one of three experimental groups. The first group was a political-identity setup, which revealed the political affiliation of each person’s social media contacts. The second group was a political-symbols setup, in which people interacted anonymously through social networks but with party symbols of the donkey and the elephant displayed at the bottom of their screens.
The third group was a non-political setup, in which people interacted anonymously. Twenty Republicans and 20 Democrats made up each social network. Once randomised, every individual forecasted Arctic sea-ice levels for the year 2025. They first answered independently, and then viewed peers’ answers before revising their guesses twice more. “We all expected polarisation when Republicans and Democrats were isolated,” said Centola. “But we were amazed to see how dramatically bipartisan networks could improve participants’ judgments,” he said. In the non-political setup, for example, polarisation disappeared entirely, with more than 85 per cent of participants agreeing on a future decrease in Arctic sea ice.