Prof. Cavanagh Explores How Social Media is Exacerbating a Polarized Electorate

Oct. 14, 2020
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As a highly polarized electorate begins to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election, the political divide in the U.S. seems to be deeper than ever, in particular, on social media. According to Associate Professor of Psychology Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., while the digital age has affected the political divide, it has also exacerbated other existing problems in humanity. 

In her presentation “Hive Minds and Political Divide in the Digital Age” for the American Museum of Natural History’s “SciCafe” series, Prof. Cavanagh discussed how digital magnification of our ultra-social natures have created looming risks including echo chambers, political polarization, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. These effects can have dire consequences on our social systems, including our elections.

“There are algorithms embedded in our social media platforms that can drive us to more and more extreme views,” she explained. “There is also evidence that we are increasingly willing to dehumanize people outside of our groups, to view them as less than human.” 
According to Prof. Cavanagh, who also serves as associate director for grants and research for the D'Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption, human beings have always been a remarkably social species, with the tendency for our moods, ideas, and even our perceptions of reality to synchronize without our conscious awareness—something she calls “hivemind.”

“The concept of a hivemind refers to the human tendency to share consensus thoughts, emotions, and opinions, and whereby when we experience the world together, it can nudge us almost into a collective sort of consciousness,” explained Prof. Cavanagh. “We don’t flock like birds or swarm like ants, but we may synchronize together through the processes of emotional contagion and social conformity, producing shared experiences of the world.”

Prof. Cavanagh explained that when you combine the ultra-sociality of humans, with all of the “hiveish proclivities and deep desire for human connection, and you give it a slim, handheld screen that conveys the thoughts and emotions of all its social partners, accessible day and night,” you can get a mixed bag. While not all social media use and behavior is harmful, as the internet can be a place where people can find sources of belonging and connection, there are still numerous perils. 

These perils include extreme views and dehumanizing behavior, which has encouraged the rampant spread of white supremacy, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, the latter of which have increasingly led to a “frightening splintering of our consensus reality, an abandonment of our hivemind acceptance of basic facts,” explained Cavanagh, adding that there is increasing polarization of political beliefs in the United States. “There are pockets online where people with different viewpoints do not interact much at all.”

Though this paints a grim feature, Prof. Cavanagh said that as humans, we can choose our narratives. “We can reject moral panics about new technologies, and realize that we are treading very old ground. We can choose not to use these new technologies in ways that eclipse our social relationships or other healthy habits. And we can instead to use them to enhance our social relationships,” she said, adding that we shouldn’t view current social media platforms as too big to reform, but push for governmental regulation, choose new media platforms to use, and research healthy ways to make social media better. 

Prof. Cavanagh explained that while we tend to fear the collective side of our humanity, we can also choose narratives that reject polarization and dehumanization and which embrace our common ground. “We can and should reject easy dehumanization and cartoonish depictions of our political rivals.” 

Prof. Cavanagh said the bottom line is that these aren’t technology problems, but humanity problems—“and the challenges facing us are daunting indeed,” she said, noting the pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice as some of the most obvious. “We are going to need all of our collective humanity to solve them.”