Social media as a polarising force: Trump’s return to Meta

Posted on: February 2nd, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

Go to Donald Trump’s 2024 Presidential Campaign site and you will be directed to take a survey. Among the questions designed to segment his audience are “What age do you identify with” and “Should critical race theory be banned in America’s schools” and “Do you believe Big Tech is censoring Republicans.”

Meta’s decision to allow Trump back on the platform won’t stop him pushing the narrative that fraud and corruption at big tech firms is evidence the “election was rigged”. Even Elon Musk, Twitter’s CEO who made the decision to release files about Trump’s suspension from the platform believes that claim is false. But painting someone as a baddie is a powerful mobiliser, and that suits Trump.

Musk had reinstated Trump after an entirely unscientific poll of users concluded 52% of them thought he should be reinstated. MHP’s more robust Polarisation Tracker asked if Musk was right to stick up for unfashionable voices that should be heard. Whilst the UK as a whole were evenly split on their response, lurking behind that was polarisation. Nearly 30% more people on the right (52%) than the left (24%) agreed with Musk’s actions to reinstate banned voices like Trumps. It would be wrong to see that as a portend America’s divisions will be replicated in the UK, but it highlights just how tricky the course Meta et al are trying to set is.

What is certain is social media has implications far beyond the platform, and companies are still struggling to keep pace with what this means. Built around algorithms which reward content that engages and provokes, social media companies’ models can be easily manipulated meaning we see only the most extreme versions of the “other side”. Moderates get muted and it evaporates a middle ground, creating a sense of polarisation that may not, yet, exist. Since 2016 social media companies have responded with measures to help limit these dynamics. New political adverts are restricted in the run up to polling day. You can no longer target based on political affiliation. It’s harder to run thousands of variations of an ad than it was.

But it is the ability for people to build audiences and ecosystems off social media which remains overlooked as a polarising force. For all the justifiable focus on the content, platforms allow campaigners to amass the details of millions of people to keep in touch with through other channels. Email. Text. Apps. Those are used to seed ideas, deepen links and raise funds. As the Jan 6th Committee found, when they unusually took the time to scrutinise the Trump campaigns emails the content was designed to be “red meat”. Freed from the standards enforced on the platform they were fertile ground for the big lie – that the election was rigged – to spread through. With up to 25 messages sent a day.

For businesses too they can find themselves dragged into polarisation. The restrictions on political criteria to target audiences leaves operatives using consumer preferences to reach potential voters. Republicans filter out those who like Whole Foods and in those who like Nascar. Democrats exclude customers at the outdoor store Bass Shop Pro and in fans of Lady Gaga. If suddenly customers start to be bombarded with political messaging from one side or the other businesses may find their audience becomes more polarised. Polarisation can have many unintended consequences and once it reaches past a certain point becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The question is, can the safeguards Meta et al are putting in place prevent that, or with audiences now built are they simply shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?