Experts say social media played a role in Wednesday’s violence in DC

MADISON, Wis. – Social media experts say Wednesday’s violence at the United States Capitol was likely a result of years of social media polarization.

UW-Madison Professor Dietram Scheufele said over the last decade, social media has become a place where people reaffirm their beliefs rather learn new information.

“We’re shifting away from where we get a lot of news that we should be seeing, to where we’ve got a lot of news that we want to be seeing,” he said. “We’re shifting away from eating our spinach news-wise to eating a lot of junk food that’s not as good for us. I think we’re seeing some of the outcomes in politics right now.”

Professor Scheufele said algorithms for Facebook and Twitter are designed to keep you on the site as long as possible, meaning they’re less likely to present you with information you disagree with.

“If I need to make profit from content that fits what you already believe, there’s a real financial incentive for me to give you things which you already know, believe, and hold dear, and to not give you anything to convince you otherwise,” he said.

Because of this, Americans exist in their own “Echo chambers”, which can allow them to become more polarized in their belief, another expert said.

“We’re in an era where people have an unprecedented ability to slip into their own echo chamber and only receive information that agrees with their worldview,” said Professor Katy Bartzen Culver. “That’s dangerous for all of us.”

Scheufele said this polarization, paired with emotion-driven content, creates the perfect breeding ground for misinformation. He said it’s misinformation like this that’s led to violence in the past, including mob violence and lynchings in India in 2018. He said the violence in Washington DC is just the latest example of the dangers misinformation can pose.

“For social media to reach a level to where it can mobilize a group, or someone can use social media to where they can mobilize a group, that then goes in and tries to interrupt the very core of our democratic decision making, I think that this is where we’re really reaching the breaking point,” he said.  “That’s why we’re seeing such strong pushback on all fronts.”

Friday’s conversation with both experts came prior to President Trump’s ban from Twitter Scheufele said Trump had seemingly figured out the perfect way to use his social media platforms to mobilize his base to violence.

“We have a President who is willing to use this medium, or the algorithmically driven media like Twitter, like Facebook, very liberally when it comes to information,” he said. “I think a lot of the followers of Donald Trump thinks what he tells them is true because ‘What the President tells me is true’. We are in a really bad spot as a country if I cannot the President of the United States to tell me the truth.”

“I think we’ve seen a tremendous outbreak of mis and disinformation spreading across these platforms, and one of the things I tell people to watch out for is anything that triggers your emotion,” Bartzen Culver said. “If you read a tweet and it gets to you really mad – stop, pause, think about it. Don’t react and don’t comment. Part of the design of getting us to continue to engage with these platforms is to continue to trigger these emotions.”

Bartzen Culver said UW-Madison has created a citizen guide to mis- and disinformation. It can be found here.