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Does Social Media Promote Polarization and Absolutism

Jan 12, 2022


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On 16 May 2020, Kate Bingham was named as the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce. In her time in post, she funded the development of a portfolio of vaccines including both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Her efforts led to the UK starting the deployment of both vaccines outside of clinical trials before any other Western country and achieving the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe. Internationally, whilst she was in post, the UK topped the league tables of funding international efforts to secure vaccines for low- and middle-income countries through the Gavi vaccine alliance. Despite all her achievements, Bingham has fewer than 1,900 Twitter followers—fewer than I had when I maintained a Twitter account. 

Bingham’s story is far from unique; for example, Professors Peter Horby and Martin Landray worked on the RECOVERY trial which has found multiple treatments for COVID-19, including identifying the first life-saving treatment, dexamethasone. They have also maintained relatively small social media followings during the pandemic in comparison to the new community of social media celebrity COVID influencers.

Evidently, social media following isn’t a meritocratic business. A recent study from the University of Southern California on social media polarization and echo chambers during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that “most of the highly influential users were partisan, which may contribute to further polarization.”

For a number of years, I’ve studied optimization problems in computer science. I have worked on these optimization problems in a variety of settings, from cyber security to road safety. Studying these problems, you quickly find that extremes don’t exist and you have to balance competing factors of risk and reward in a variety of scenarios. Given the degree of polarization on social media, it isn’t hard to imagine that when nuanced problems are discussed on social media, absolutist solutions are presented as perfect answers.

Recently, I decided to finally ditch my Twitter account, but I needed to find something to replace my need for real-time news. Whilst Twitter may have flaws, it provides access to a network of world-class experts who often don’t share their expertise with any other platform. I found myself wanting to consume a more diverse set of information, without needing to see interactions like the abusive replies under tweets by public officials. 

In searching, I found a service called Feedly. The service allows users to follow content from news sites, blogs, Twitter, and newsletters, without requiring you to directly use those sites. You can choose to order news based both on popularity and in chronological order, alongside being able to deduplicate your feed and group content into different folders.The platform isn’t perfect, for example, to receive push notifications for certain feeds, you need to configure a third-party service like IFTT to do this. Nevertheless, it provides an even better way to keep abreast of current affairs whilst dropping some of the toxic baggage that comes from social media.

I have so far used this approach for a few weeks now, but already found some unexpected improvements in my own outlook. The first time I read through my new newsfeed, I was surprised by how fast I was able to get through it without being distracted by the usual clutter of suggested tweets, likes, and replies. Secondly, as I was just seeing the headlines from news outlets I wanted, without being editorialized by tweet authors, I found myself having a far more balanced emotional response to the headlines I was reading.

Perhaps the fundamental shift at play here is one of the incentives. A social media site that is largely funded by advertising may find themselves incentivized to keep me on the site for as long as possible. By contrast, a news-reading app that is paid for by the reader would instead see themselves as more incentivized to meet the demands of the readers who pay for their service. In any respect, for now, I’m now certainly glad that I have cut my social media intake, and am pleased at an improved wheat-to-chaff ratio.


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