Social Media Does Damage to the Israeli-Palestinian Debate
Posted by Donald Ellis
I always tell students or groups that I am speaking to not to fall into the trap of communication ideology. By ideology I mean slavish adherence to a set of beliefs about how communication works. One piece of communication ideology is that the more opportunity for communication the better; that is, all opportunities and technological availabilities devoted to the increase in communicative contact are by definition “good.” For example, some of the most current and interesting research procedures have graphically displayed how contact in the world of social media has detracted from Israel-Palestine debate. An article at Vox.com on how social media makes the debate worse explains how polarization is on the increase and there is even less contact between the opposing sides. The article makes the argument that social media makes things worse between Israel and Palestine. How can that be?
The graph in this link displays clusters of contact and those locations in the graph where there are large gaps between clusters are indicators of lack of contact. In those places where contacts cluster each point in the cluster has lots of neighbors; that is, there are groups of connections that increase the likelihood of additional connections. This creates clusters and indicators and there is strong and regular reciprocal contact between members of that cluster neighborhood. In effect, it is an empirical indicator of the confirmation hypothesis or the fact that people turn to those like them for evidence to confirm their beliefs and ignore others with opposing views.
The data displays in the two links are a visualization of the results of analysis of the interactions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. As the graph depicts, each camp talks mostly to those in their preferred camp. This difficult and violent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has entrenched each side in its own discourse such that they spend most of their time reinforcing each other. It is also a rather dramatic display of the lack of cooperation between the two sides. The flow of information between these two politicized camps is stunted. This results in members of each camp living within a bounded community of language and ideas related to the conflict and, most importantly, never getting beyond the limits of their own thinking and information. The matrix of ideas and attitudes they live in may be defensible, but if they don’t see the language and matrix of ideas from the other side than they do not have a full picture of the conflict. To put it simply, cooperation and engaged problem-solving will not result when the two sides share such little common information.
One response to this problem is to improve the media environment such that each has more access to the same media. Middle ground media typically fail to gain the energy and intensity of partisan media but they are more effective as bridging structures: in other words, bridging structures or bridging discourse connects groups and exposes them to opposing viewpoints. As of now, social media is failing miserably because it is simply one more mechanism of providing exposure and reinforcement to those who already agree with you. It is, in Dryzek’s words, bringing forth more “bonding” discourse which unites people of similar dispositions but divides them from others. Bridging discourse is harder work because it must understand the other group and build a bridge – a discursive bridge – between the two divided groups. The simplistic theory of social media, that it would facilitate an open flow of contact, gives way to a more realistic theory that demonstrates how people affirm what they already believe.
Lotan’s research in the first link above offers up strong evidence that partisans from the two sides rarely talk to one another. Moreover, the more you are committed and ego involved in a political issue the more likely you are to ignore evidence to the contrary and resist making the other side look good. Some of these cluster networks maintain a cycle of self-reinforcement that keeps each side trapped in his or her discourse. We could say that a tribal mentality continues.
About Donald EllisProfessor emeritus at the University of Hartford.
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