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Can social media networks reduce political polarization on climate change?

Social media is a breeding ground for political thought. Facebook & Twitter are used on multiple occasions by politicians and political activists to get their point across. However, do their thoughts and views actually reach the whole population of social media? No. Why? We live in our own social networks and don’t really like to leave them or look at the other side.

In class we have been learning about graph theory and social networks. One of the topics we spent time on was the balancing of graphs and why networks or graphs form. In a political sense, networks often form around the same political thought and rarely bridge over to the other side. For example, in this study done by University of Pennsylvania Conservatives and Democrats alike stayed within their own networks when trying to learn about climate change. As a result, they falsely interpreted the rising sea levels of the Arctic. The researchers at Penn decided to test the impact of the political social networks by creating three environments: two groups of democrats and republicans, one group where they were marked as republican or democrat, and a group where political affiliation wasn’t known. What they found was that in the two separate groups there was of course polarization one way or another; this was expected. When political affiliation wasn’t known the group came to a much more accurate conclusion of the rising sea levels in the arctic. Finally, and the most interesting was as soon as you introduced political affiliation into the group the polarization of opinions came back. Even though each individual heard the other side they choose not to pay attention to it or change their viewpoints. The social networks would not merge. This is an example of why social networks form and why they don’t really mix.

Are we really surprised by the results of this study? No. But it also shows how prevalent social networks are in determining our opinion and how hard it is to change a social network. Additionally, when looking at America’s political involvement on Facebook or Twitter we can see how and why the two sides—democrat and republican—deviate from each other so easily. Neither side has the chance to see the other side and when they do they tend to stay in their own realm. So will social media reduce polarization? Most likely not because its to easy to stay in your niche and never approach the other side.

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September 2018