Social media is turning us into thoughtless political extremists

Your Facebook feed is a virtual echo chamber. It serves the same purpose as Fox News or MSNBC.

Big Think Managing Editor Jason Gots recently penned a keen piece on political radicals on Facebook that got me thinking about the ways social media has altered our political rhetoric. At the risk of sounding too much like I'm sucking up to the boss, much of Jason's piece articulated the exact trepidations I feel about my own social media pals:


"There's this disconnect between your Facebook voice (always out for blood) and your in-person voice on those rare occasions when we meet (warm, funny, kind). I'm not saying this is a good thing — the not-talking-explicitly. I just don't like ugly arguments and ad hominem attacks, which I fear (with good reason) is what would happen if I responded to your Facebook posts, which, honestly, have gotten on my nerves to the point where I've hidden them from my News Feed."

Fulfilling the title of his blog — "Overthinking Everything" — Jason delves deeply into the topic. He rallies against the frustrating elements of extremism while questioning how the Facebook radicals of the world would behave should they ever achieve the power they seek. It's an interesting take that's really worth a read. What's that? There's something brown on my nose? I don't know what you're talking about.

The following isn't so much a response to Jason's piece as it is a minor digression or corollary. It began, fittingly, as a Facebook comment in which I attempted to explain why social media (like almost all contemporary media) is bad for political conversation. I should note that I feel the same about irritating conservatives on social media as I do about irritating liberals, though with the caveat that on most issues I lean toward the latter.

Two reasons why social media is bad for us, politically:

1. The echo chamber: I think a huge part of why we've become so divided as a society stems from the binaries mentioned in Jason's piece. Just as conservatives reinforce their anti-liberal sentiments by watching Fox News (and vice-versa with liberals and MSNBC), folks on Facebook curate their audience to form an echo chamber. It's basically self-structured propaganda, which is inherently anti-liberal by the classical definition. Flashier, more inflammatory ideas rise to the top of the conversation thus fueling the sorts of radical biases and heuristics that subconsciously radicalize people. The middle ground shrinks as rhetorical forces seek to push people farther left or farther right. I don't think that's healthy for a society, especially when radicalization comes attached to a sense of mean-spiritedness against the other side.

Stock photo ©spxChrome

2. Tactics and tone: The whole public-shaming culture bugs me because it portrays conflicting opinions as, at best, the stupid ramblings of uninformed idiots; at worst, straight-up evil. People act differently online than they do in person, often for the worse, because we see other people online as characters in a larger digital drama rather than real human beings. It engenders a sense of enmity against our peers that ought not have any place in a respectful and democratic society. It also kills me to see people shun, demean, or shame the ignorant, because ignorance is not always the result of volition. Demonization is lazy. It alienates people who might otherwise have come around to your beliefs had they not been made to feel bad. Social media and the SJW mindset (as much as I hate that term) both promote a shouting-down of the opposition rather than a thoughtful attempt to sway opinion. It, by design, divides rather than unites.

3. Memes are the lowest form of political discourse: I mean seriously, come on...



How are we supposed to have deep political discussions when so much of our rhetoric is splashing around in the kiddie pool? This is probably our current era's most chronic ill. Our collective attention spans are so short that most of us only crave shareable, single-serving doses that reflect our own worldview rather than pursue a thorough understanding of how the political world works. And those in the traditional media (who are ostensibly responsible for keeping the public informed) feed those cravings all the way to the bank. Social media isn't necessarily responsible for this (we are), but it's sure not helping things.


You can follow Robert on Twitter at @monteneggroll.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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