Obama is right: Social media deepens political division

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Obama is right: Social media deepens political division

The most acrimonious election in memory mercifully ends tonight.

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Obama is right: Social media deepens political division

Jon Swartz , USA TODAY 7:27 p.m. EST November 8, 2016
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Screen shot of President Obama's Twitter account.

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Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views. Newslook

SAN FRANCISCO — The most acrimonious election in memory mercifully ends tonight.

Nasty late-night tweets. Fake news stories circulated on Facebook. Contentiouscomments from each side cluttering social media.

It's enough vitriol to depress a nation and prompt its leader, President Obama, to say he didn't realize social media would deepen political divisions and muddy facts the way it has this year. He took aim squarely at social media for exacerbating the country's problems in candid comments at a rally in Philadelphia Monday night.

The president's extraordinary remarks underscore social media's role in quite possibly the most rancorous presidential election.

Social media was supposed to make us more connected; instead, it often leaves us isolated. The “bubble effect” and “echo chambers” effects of Facebook and Twitter are reassuring to like-minded people, who can share triumphs and anxieties comfortably within virtual cocoons.

We seek opinions that confirm our own opinions," says Karen North, professor of digital social media at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. "In previous generations, there were fewer news sources, and they were objective. Now, most of us get our news from influencers with opinions and voices that we like. We expect our news to come to us."

Sound familiar? What's happening on social media is a larger-scale version of what occurred with cable TV, where partisan coverage led conservatives to choose Fox News and liberals to opt for MSNBC.

"There's been a growing divide for some time — social media has amplified it," says Donna Rice Hughes, CEO of Enough is Enough, a nonprofit dedicated to making the Internet safer for children and families. (If her name sounds familiar, that's because she was at the center of a media maelstorm in 1987, when she was romantically linked to Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart.)

"Social media enables the atomization of tribes," says Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, an e-book distributor based in Los Gatos, Calif. "White supremacists can now find safe harbors where their beliefs are shared, confirmed and amplified, and where they can remain immune to reason and facts."

The corrosive national conversation has been manifested in several ways, including:

Fake news spreads fast. A rash of spurious "news" from unreliable sources has fed the worst instincts and fears of supporters from the left and right. The unfiltered format of Facebook, with its 1.8 billion members, has increasingly become a spawning ground for unverified accounts, no matter how outlandish the claims.

One piece suggested that Donald Trump won the first debate. Another claimed Clinton supporter Khizr Khan, whose son died in combat in Iraq in 2004, spoke against Trump because the Democratic National Committee "promised to salvage him from imminent bankruptcy."

False information can spread quickly on Facebook, but it can be debunked just as fast in a diverse network like Twitter, says Dee Anna McPherson, co-founder of mom.life, a social network for moms. “The result is kind of a roller coaster of emotions as you follow topics important to you,” she says.

Twitter trolling. The free-for-all nature and tone of the micro-blogging site — often done anonymously — has created a "mob mentality," says Kellan Terry, senior data analyst at Brandwatch, which tracks social conversations.

Terry says roughly half the tweets about Trump, who has generated 229 million mentions since he announced his presidential bid in June 2015, are negative. The same percentage is true for Clinton, who has generated 128 million Twitter mentions since she announced in April 2015.

If there is solace in any of this, Facebook does provide transparency in affixing real names to comments and content. And as many people have said on Facebook, it can be refreshing to see where your "friends" stand, and and what is important to them.

The promise of technology, and its ability to enhance instant communication around the planet, gave hope to the utopian idea of what French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others called the “global brain.” There, in virtual space, humans would share thoughts, perceptions and personalities, leading to greater understanding, says Ken Goffman, former editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000, a glossy cyberculture magazine published in California during the 1980s and 1990s that preceded Wired.

Then, social media came along and largely disproved it all. The snarky exchange of virtual opinions reflect a nation divided, Goffman says. "We're probably bigger a----in the matrix than we are on the street, where we can actually see somebody and be a little bit nervous about being punched or we might have an embodied sense that the person that we're facing is another human being," he says.

Yet there's a benefit to this firehose of information.

Access to multiple perspectives, regardless of the view, offers perspective and intelligence that gives voters significant advantages, says Josh McHugh, CEO of Attention Span, a digital strategy firm that works with political campaigns and sports organizations. "Those who find ways to transcend their filter bubbles will tend to win," says McHugh. "Those who remain trapped in a false binary framework will tend to lose."

Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.

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