World Wide Wrangle: A Look at Political Discourse on Social Media

By Elizabeth Lehman

According to Statista in 2017, 81 percent of Americans had a social media profile and that percentage is predicted to increase.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are often a stage for many political and social debates.

A study published in The Sociological Quarterly in October 2017 examined a theory by German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who said social media could be the new public sphere.

He defined the public sphere as where “private people come together as a public,” using reason to further critical knowledge which can lead to political change.

The study found that social media does not live up to this potential. In the study, 72.4 percent of participants reported a lack of civil discourse on social media and 3.4 percent of participants reported successfully engaging in civil political discourse on social media.

Daniel O’Neill, communication professor at Youngstown State University, said the immediacy of social media is not always the best way to examine the truth of an argument.

He said people need room to develop arguments and to examine claims and the evidence and reasoning to support those claims.

“A lot of people just are exchanging their feelings and that’s a big problem,” O’Neill said. “I have a lot of confidence in the internet but I just don’t have very much confidence with those other means by which people communicate in really short, terse, immediate kinds of responses. I don’t think they help understanding at all.”

Ryan Weaver, a part-time faculty member in communication, said social media often allows people to live in bubbles, surrounding themselves with others with similar opinions.

“That creates this extreme polarization where I’m just digging in more into my beliefs and I never have to see anybody that I disagree with. Now occasionally, these worlds might interact, where I might see a comment from someone from a different sort of bubble and that’s when I have this tremendous conflict, and that’s when friendships might break down,” Weaver said.

Weaver said the ability to easily click unfriend or unfollow allows people to cultivate a social media newsfeed which only exposes them to ideas they agree with. He said he does that himself and is probably not alone.

“We only let in the people that we like and the things we want to hear and this is only going to make us more polarized,” Weaver said. “This is only going to make us dig in deeper to the things that we think are true and want to be true. And that really worries me.”

Weaver said to combat this, he has taken to following people and news outlets in his Twitter feed who share viewpoints he is not ideologically aligned with.

“I at least feel like I owe it to myself and to them to listen, to at least hear what they’re saying. People are generally not malicious, evil people,” Weaver said. “If people disagree with you and have different worldviews, they usually do so because they have rational explanations for it and why they believe certain things.”

Michael Jerryson, associate professor of religious studies, said getting through to someone is a matter of learning how to speak the language which that person thinks and sees the world in, particularly in terms of using the appropriate metaphors.

Jerryson said a study published by the Social Psychology Bulletin in 2016 found that liberals tend to think in terms of equality and fairness, while conservatives tend to think more in terms of loyalty and purity.

“You have to begin to learn how to speak the language of what that person has now become conditioned to think and see in,” Jerryson said. “So, a liberal is trying to talk to a conservative and convince them of their point. If the liberal is trying to talk about equality and fairness, it’s not going to reach them.”

He said it affects the way a person sees and understands things.

“[If] you’re not aware of how other audiences can use different language, then you’re never going to be able to connect,” Jerryson said. “That can create what can be seemingly irreconcilable differences when it’s not, it’s a matter of communication.”