Over the last several years, Facebook has been a lightening rod for controversy, as scholars and pundits alike debate the social media platform’s impact on civil discourse, both in the United States and beyond. With a new $50,000 grant from Facebook, Associate Professor of Government Jaime Settle and her students hope to determine how users process political information encountered there and why they engage with different types of content, including fake news.
Settle is fascinated by political interaction and how people handle conflict; so much so that she moderated a Charter Day conversation between President Katherine Rowe and Chancellor Robert Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 on the subject of constructive disagreement. She is also no stranger to the study of social media impact. Her previous research — published in a book titled Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America — has established how the mere process of using Facebook can polarize users and that features imbedded within Facebook further exacerbate biases. However, Settle says researchers have only scratched the surface of this problem.
“We need to understand how individuals’ characteristics as well as the features of Facebook content alter the psychologically polarizing effects of the site,” she says.
On the individual level, Settle says that researchers need to understand how personality differences, Facebook usage behavior and social network composition affect the extent to which a person forms hostile attitudes towards people with whom they disagree. She points out that fake news doesn’t spread in a social vacuum, and believes it is necessary to understand the degree to which Facebook content appeals to those individual personality differences to foster animosity and social distance.
“On the one hand, the ability to receive immediate positive feedback on our social media posts create an incentive to share fake news, and we are more likely to share news if it came from a friend,” she says. “On the other hand, social media provides an unprecedented opportunity to observe how our friends and family interact with news and information and make judgments based on those interactions.”
Her proposed research will incorporate the efforts of both former and current students and target both individual users and content. Settle and co-investigator Taylor Feenstra Carlson ’14 will study participants through a panel survey, which requires asking them questions at two different points in time. In this way, she will be able to gauge how the subjects interact with and alter their networks within a given period of time. Current students in the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab are helping the narrow down the questions based on their background reading and interests. Her project will culminate in a conference where she and other Facebook-funded researchers will have the opportunity to share and compare results.
Ultimately, the goal is to generate knowledge that will allow social media networks like Facebook to design effective interventions that can both prevent the spread of “fake news” while also prevent psychological polarization.
“There is a lot of variation between users that can affect how they interact on the site and process the political information they encounter,” she says. “We need to understand that variation so that we can effectively address the problem.”
Settle has just been named to the advisory board for the American National Election Studies (ANES) for the 2020 election cycle. ANES is one of the longest-standing research programs in political science, dating back to the 1950s, and is run by the top scholars in political behavior and political psychology.