Editor’s Note: Christopher Bail is the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter @chris_bail. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As Republicans and Democrats continue to sort themselves into different geographic regions, we may soon realize that social media is one of the few remaining places where bipartisan dialogue is actually possible. This question will become doubly urgent as younger generations of Americans continue to flock to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to learn about politics.
Put simply, we will eventually have to figure out how these platforms can be a place where Americans come together to solve our problems, rather than allow them to drive us apart?
The chief problem, many argue, is that we also segregate ourselves on social media. We live in echo chambers that reinforce our pre-existing opinions and prevent us from hearing opposing views. When my colleagues and I in the Duke Polarization Lab set out to study this issue, however, we found reason to question this common wisdom.
During one month in late-2017, we paid a large group of Twitter users to follow bots designed to disrupt their echo chambers by tweeting messages from prominent people with opposing political views. Unfortunately, our experiment did not make people more moderate: To the contrary, it made division even worse, entrenching people in their own views.
One reason we think this “backfire” effect occurred is that people were not exposed to the content of the other party’s ideas, but rather a much heavier dose of the insipid political warfare that social media is known for. This type of exposure did not allow them to carefully consider new ideas, but instead only heightened their sense of “us” vs. “them.”
Hidden deep within the data, however, we found a small piece of hope. As we searched through years of data from Twitter users, we were able to count the number of times they liked tweets from opinion leaders (elected officials, journalists and media organizations from the other side). Though likes from members of opposing parties are very rare, some opinion leaders have gained modest traction with the other side.
How do they do it? There is no single ingredient for effective bipartisanship on social media, but we identified a notable trend: those who gain the most traction with those on the other side of the aisle are willing to clean their own house first.
Unsurprisingly, on the Republican side, the most effective bipartisan communicators we identified are those who have repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump, such as Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Amanda Carpenter, a former adviser and speech writer to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and current CNN contributor. We estimate more than 50% of the people who like their tweets identify as Democrats. We produce these estimates by linking our survey data to each respondents’ Twitter accounts, which allows us to assess the frequency with which each opinion leader successfully reaches across party lines.
Taking on one of America’s least popular presidents may not seem particularly heroic to many Democrats, but other Republicans gain traction by cutting the core of their party’s identity as well. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, gained traction among Democratic Twitter users when he stood up to his Republican colleagues to advocate for policies that benefit the middle class during debates about the Trump administration’s 2017 tax bill. His willingness to buck the trend inspired modest approbation from Democrats on Twitter. About 30% of the people who liked his tweets are Democrats, according to our models.
Some public figures who are slightly left of center have gained considerable traction by taking on their own side as well. Nearly three quarters of the people who like tweets by former CNN broadcaster Piers Morgan are Republicans, according to our models. These users are particularly fond of his claims that liberals are hypocrites who promote diversity around race and gender, but not political views. Of course, these same positions have made Morgan a frequent target of criticism by many Democrats who might not describe his politics as liberal at all.
A more clear-cut example of a liberal who has won bipartisan appeal by criticizing his own party is former Atlantic columnist and now public relations specialist Ron Fournier. Though he is a very strong critic of Trump – and opposed his presidency at every opportunity – Fournier was among the relatively small group of liberals to accuse Hillary Clinton of lying about her personal email server. While few, if any, Democrats may be interested in reopening that saga, Fournier’s scrutiny of his own side made him the second-most liked liberal in our sample.
Why does criticizing one’s one side win audiences on the other side of the aisle? A willingness to critically evaluate one’s own side – or at least acknowledge the diversity and intricacy of the other – can open up the cognitive space necessary for both sides to begin listening to each other. Indeed, a recent study indicates Republicans and Democrats vastly overstate their differences on a range of different issues. Simply informing them about these misperceptions creates marked decreases in animosity.
A particularly vexing problem, then, is how Twitter users can achieve this on platforms that demand short takes. Twitter’s move to increase its character limits is a good first step. One study demonstrated that the increase from 140 to 280 characters made discussion about politics more deliberative and more civil.
But modest increases in the space available for political debate are a band-aid on a problem that cuts to the very core of how social media platforms operate. Platforms can do much more to promote and reward introspection by developing algorithms that amplify these messages, and creating new spaces for those leaders and everyday users who are still willing to engage in a genuine battle of ideas.
We, social media users, must also do our part. Criticizing our own side requires considerable courage in an era of such deep political divisions, but it may also be a critical first step to steer our public conversation back from the brink.