Political extremism in America? Blame Facebook and Twitter, not Russia.

Historian and Author

"I think the Facebook and Twitter have been configured to incentivize the expression and sharing of extreme opinions. It isn’t just fake news that we have to worry about, but we do have to worry about that, it’s also extreme views. Both are in fact incentivized by the structure of the network platforms as they existed. And I think looking back on 2016 the correct analysis of that election is not that the Russian network interfered and that’s why Trump won, I don’t think the Russian contribution was nearly big enough for that statement to be valid. What is true is that without the existence of Facebook and Twitter it would’ve been very hard for an outlier outside a candidate like Donald Trump to win."

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

NIALL FERGUSON: I don’t think the history of the 2016 election will be correctly written until it is clearly stated 'no Facebook, no Trump.' Anybody who expected a wonderful happy global community to form on the Internet in which everybody would share cat videos has been gravely disappointed. In fact, what’s happened has been an already quite polarized political scene has become even more polarized. Why? Well, remember rule number one of the networks, birds of a feather flock together, homophily operates. So people have naturally gravitated into two rival clusters if you want to put it this way, a liberal cluster, and a conservative cluster. But what’s fascinating is the way that peculiarities of today’s network platforms exacerbate this problem. For example, we now know that a tweet is 20 percent more likely to be read tweeted for every moral or emotional word that it uses. If you want to get retweeted you, therefore, are incentivized to use strong language. We can see that the legislators in the House of Representatives and the Senate who have the most Facebook followers are the most ideologically extreme according to their voting patterns. So I think the Facebook and Twitter have been configured to incentivize the expression and sharing of extreme opinions. It isn’t just fake news that we have to worry about, but we do have to worry about that, it’s also extreme views. Both are in fact incentivized by the structure of the network platforms as they existed. And I think looking back on 2016 the correct analysis of that election is not that the Russian network interfered and that’s why Trump won, I don’t think the Russian contribution was nearly big enough for that statement to be valid. What is true is that without the existence of Facebook and Twitter it would’ve been very hard for an outlier outside a candidate like Donald Trump to win. But those network platforms created opportunities for a populist that really had not existed before and his campaign knew how to use them and continues to know how to use them.


Remember the algorithms are designed to give you more of what you engaged with before. You may not even notice it but as you like thing, as you share them you’re signaling two of the network platforms your preferences and it’s set up to give you more of that because the more engaged you are the more advertising they can sell. That’s how they make their money. So I think it’s time to kind of dial back our addiction, not only for political reasons but also because it’s addictive and addictions are bad for you. The more time you spend, and we all spend crazy amounts of time on our smartphones using these platforms, the less time you have to read Tolstoy or my book. And I think the books are actually much the best way for human beings to get high-level information. I think it’s better for your peace of mind and it will be better for our body politic if we all spend much less time on our smartphones using Facebook and Twitter and much more time reading books.