Popular narratives about how social media shapes political polarization emphasize echo chambers, foreign misinformation campaigns, and algorithmic radicalization. Yet a careful review of the scientific literature indicates there is surprisingly little evidence that these factors shape political beliefs or inter-group attitudes. Drawing upon multiple field experiments, large-scale analysis of social media data, and longitudinal in-depth interviews, this talk will offer a new account that emphasizes the role of social identity, status-seeking, and social learning. It will explain how social media distorts how people understand what other people think of them, and how this prism-like effect pushes social outcasts towards extremism and mutes moderates who do not depend on social media for their sense of self-worth. Chris Bail will introduce a suite of apps, bots, and other tools designed to help social media users enact research from this research to combat polarization from the bottom up. He will also discuss top-down solutions identified via a field experiment he conducted with his colleagues on a new social media platform for scientific research designed to discourage identity-based dynamics in political conversations online.
Chris Bail is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab. A Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, he studies political extremism on social media using tools from the burgeoning field of computational social science.