Kai Wright: How do we know when it's too late, when our democracy is really past its tipping point and can't keep itself up? Thomas Edsall, the veteran political journalist and New York Times contributor has been putting this question to political scientists, and the findings are alarming. Coming up in The United States of Anxiety, we'll talk with him, we'll look ahead at a pivotal political year, and we'll take your calls. Tell us, how worried are you? Like really, are you genuinely concerned about the health of our democracy, or is it just more political background noise? The next installment of our ongoing look at the state of our digital Town Square.
Anna Kramer: There's a societal responsibility for all of us to be talking about this more, not just blaming companies or politicians, but why is it that we as everyone are like this on the internet?
Regina de Heer: From a scale of 1 to 10, how anxious are you about the state of American democracy moving forward past 2024?
Vivian: I don't know six, seven.
Christina: I'm going to say six because everybody has their own opinion, and it's okay to respect everyone. I feel that we are giving too much space to everyone.
Kweku: Probably four, I even read from time to time, it's not always in front of my mind.
Katie: Like a five because I just choose a little bit ignorance is a bliss, but I definitely don't think that we're in a good place with it.
Alexis: I say seven, I'm really concerned about the polarization of our communities and how we're not able to compromise because people are, "No, you're my enemy, so I'm not even going to listen to you." How can we possibly imagine people on the Congress floor to be doing anything different? Because that's what we're doing on our individual levels.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Let me start with the opening words President Biden offered in his address to the nation on January 6th.
President Biden: Madam Vice President and fellow Americans. To state the obvious, one year ago today, in this sacred place, democracy was attacked, simply attacked. The will of the people was under assault. The Constitution, our Constitution, faced the greatest threats. Outnumbered in the face of a brutal attack, the Capitol Police, the DC Metropolitan Police Department, the National Guard, and other brave law enforcement officials saved the rule of law.
Our democracy held, we the people endured, we the people prevail. For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol, but they failed. They failed. On this day of remembrance, we should just make sure that such attack never, never happens again.
Kai Wright: I don't know. I guess in the most literal sense, the attack last January failed. In almost every other way, it's tough for me to share the President's certainty about how that day concluded, and about all that's happened since. Then it's become commonplace to do this, to rhetorically wring one's hands about the state of our politics. Honestly, I'm not at all clear how much urgency people who don't do politics feel about the state of our democracy.
I want to hear from you. Let's start with a question you heard our producer Virginity here asking people out in the streets over this past week, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how anxious are you about the fate of democracy itself in this country? To put some boundaries on it, let's say the fate of the democracy past the 2024 presidential election, how anxious are you about whether we'll have a functioning democracy after that point? Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 and tell me why.
As we take your calls, I'm joined by someone who has been watching our politics and our democracy for many years. Thomas Edsall writes a weekly column for The New York Times about politics, demographics, and inequality. In a couple of columns, just before the new year, he interviewed a number of political scientists about the state of our democracy. He joins me now to talk about what he heard and to take your questions. Thomas, thanks for coming on.
Thomas Edsall: All right. In terms of a hard number, I would say seven and a half would be my level of concern.
Kai Wright: You are at seven and half.
Thomas Edsall: Seven and a half. It's significant, but not totally fatally committed to the idea that we're on the verge of collapse. It is a dangerous position and a delicate one. The real issue is that there is a significant group, it's a minority but a significant group, who really do not support the basic norms of democracy, roughly 30% of the electorate. Almost all Republicans who see the likes of election stolen and who are prepared to support policies that really endanger the ability of election officials to conduct a fair and open contest for seats from the presidency down to state legislative seats.
They're trying to take over the election administration machinery and turn those powers over to state legislatures, especially in swing states, with Republican legislatures, so the Republicans would have the power to determine who won an election as opposed to a theoretically less biased administrator. These are significant challenges to democracy and could result in a corrupt election outcome as soon as this year 2022 or more problematically in 2024, if there were a close election to the presidency, and the election was ultimately decided, the Electoral College votes were decided by biased decisions in Republican-controlled state legislatures. There's a significant danger to the operation of democracy.
Kai Wright: Your seven and a half has you not at complete collapse of the idea of democracy, but just but the operation of it being pretty gummed up?
Thomas Edsall: Yes.
Kai Wright: I want to talk a little bit about the why that you spelled out in your column before the new year. You've been reading and interviewing political scientists and sociologists. You summed it up in that column, the headline, it was an alarming headline, "How to Tell When Your Country is Past The Point of No Return." One sociologist you spoke with, Michael Macy at Cornell University, he said to you, and I'm going to quote it, "Unlike the threat to democracy posed by a military coup, the threat posed by authoritarian populism is incremental.
If the water temperature increases only one degree per hour, it may take a while before you notice it is too hot, and by that time, it is too late. We might be better off if we faced an armed insurrection." I want you to say more about that because honestly, for at least a couple of years now, for me, the whole democracy conversation has felt quite similar to the climate discussion in that there's this inexorable march toward a disaster that is actually happening quite fast, but that people are really only experiencing it incrementally. That seems like what Michael Macy is talking about. Can you say more about that?
Thomas Edsall: I think one I agree with you, two, it is a situation where what is really surprising to me is how little opposition to these trends has emerged from the center and from the left. It is, as I think he describes, like the frog in a pot of water if it's slowly boiling, and suddenly, he's going to be boiled without knowing it. For example, what really strikes me is that there is no, for example, student protest going on about all this, that air is something that would seem to be very attractive at least.
I'm an old man now, but in my youth, the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Rights Movement, all provoked real assertions of concern on the campus and on marches and marches on Washington, et cetera. Here's one that it seems to me to be equally or more important, perhaps, because it encompasses everything, the whole democratic system, and it includes your good adversary, Donald Trump, and a Republican Party that's been taken over by people who are basically authoritarian.
It's an ideal mechanism or an ideal adversary to choose but this has not happened on the campus, and much less in the broader public, in the same way that the Civil Rights Movement or/and the Vietnam war, all those things produced real outcry. We have a situation of, let's say at least equal proportion and no action. As you say, the climate situation is similar, but this democracy thing is something you would think would be felt. Students don't like to be bossed around. They do not like to be held under authoritarian circumstances.
Kai Wright: Well, I'll say that, next week, we are in fact going to talk with a student who has been hunger-striking on half of the voting rights legislation in Congress. There's some out there. There are some students in Arizona. Stay tuned next week, dear listeners, to hear what they have to say, but I agree part of the premise of tonight's show is that it seems to me that there's a gap between what feels so urgent and how urgent this feels in everybody's lives. We've got a ton of callers already. Let's hear from some of them as we talk through your column, Thomas, to just see where people are ending.
Thomas Edsall: Sure.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Andy in Westchester. Andy, welcome to the show.
Andy: Hey guy. Hey Mr. Edsall, thanks for having me. As I mentioned to your screener, just before I give you my rating, I do think a lot of this is driven by distraction. Back in the day, Vietnam war and so forth, there wasn't the internet, there wasn't the sheer amount of noise and distraction and everyone can create their own reality. What I see is I'm a 9.5 in the feel of concern. I'm also already coming to terms with it. There's going to be a sweep in 2022. Trump is absolutely going to be the president in 2024 to my dismay. If I don't accept this, I'm going to lose my mind and probably end up in the hospital.
Part of it is just help and acceptance, it's going to happen. By the time, I think the only thing that's really going to activate people is going to be when it really starts to impact them. They start to see that, "Wow, we are a minority rural country and there's no off-ramp." It's going to hit a fever pitch. Finally, you'll have maybe 10 years, 15 years, I think you're going to have people rise up. There's going to be more of what you saw in January, but it's going to be on the other side and it's going to be people finally realizing it's been taken away. It's just going to take a long time unfortunately to get to that point.
Kai Wright: Ten years is a long time. Thank you Andy. Let's go to Carol in the West Village. Carol, welcome to the show.
Carol: Hi, thank you.
Kai Wright: Where are you? On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you put yourself?
Carol: Oh, I would put myself around a five. I think that it's just a small point to talk about the elections. I think there is such despair over loss of jobs, scarcity of low-income housing, difficulties with rents and mortgage loss from 2008. There's so-- and loss of job. There's so much suffering going on that the peak is coming through these public things like elections. Yes, I agree that a minority country is difficult to fathom. I agree that the Supreme Court deciding on who is to be president at the election that happened three years ago is a hard thing to take that it is making people feel like they have no voice.
Kai Wright: You're only out of five. You would say, this is halfway to dire in terms of our democracy.
Carol: Yes, I think it's a process. I think when people can afford to put their lives at risk in order to have their political voice be heard, that it will become more dire. I don't think it's dire just because guns were in the Capitol. I lived through the 60s. There has to be an enormous amount of loss before people will stand up and be heard, and there's a lot of politicians and corporate policymakers that have to listen to the people. It will be a long process, that's why I give it a five.
Kai Wright: Thank you Carol. Thomas, before we go to our break and do some more calls, speaking of process. You talked to the political scientists, again in this column, and one of the most striking studies you discussed to me at least is one of those published in December. Five political scientists who described a feedback loop that can occur inside a political party and that eventually becomes irreversible. Can you try to explain what they mean by this feedback loop and what its consequences are for the Republican Party?
Thomas Edsall: Well, you really can see it in the Republican Party where the first feed in a sense is Trump declaring that he won the election and that the election was stolen. The feedback comes from millions of his supporters actually agreeing with that and willing to accept the premise that this is true. Then Trump echoes it further and the two feed on each other and build up a substantial constituency. By that about, I would say left 30% of all voters and the majority of Republican voters that's based on a disproven conspiracy.
That's the process, I don't mean to exaggerate this too much, but when you see authoritarian governments taking place, including, in Germany in the early 1930s, it was a minority faction that pushed Adolf Hitler into his position of power and the slow accession to that process by the establishment. The problem is that Republicans are now using semi-legal and still not proven by judiciary ruling to be illegal procedures in state legislatures and other places, that then if they come to fruition in 2024, they all have evolved and taken place with this very little feedback going on to the center and to the left, whereas the right is feeding itself.
Then, at some juncture, this 30% can then add the rest of Republicans and then some people who just don't pay attention to politics and so on and so forth. Then it accumulates into what is then a very dangerous circumstance. I don't think the argument that was made a little earlier, that people are suffering too much-- Now people were suffering back in the 1960s, the average level of the cost of living, and so forth. Things were worse back then for people, and especially for minorities but also for poor Whites back then they are than they are now, I think.
I thought the other caller had a good point about how many people are exercising their political fuse by just saying so on Twitter. That seems to satisfy a lot of needs without having much effect that there's a rhetorical satisfaction in declaring, "Yes, I'm against this," but then nothing to really follow up and to change what's taking place. It may be that the internet has really undermined the mass protest or mass challenging to the right that's necessary at this point.
Kai Wright: Well, certainly there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the internet and what it has done to our politics, we'll talk about that a little later in the show too. I also just wonder about the actual feedback loop inside the Republican Party and the inability of the party to correct its course. That's part of what I'm seeing in that study you cited, which is scary because it's one of two political parties in the country, that it would be unable to correct its course at this point. Is that what you were hearing from them, that it literally is past the point of return?
Thomas Edsall: Very likely. Partly is a system in which all the rewards are for accepting these basic untruths about the Trump stolen election. If you challenge that, if you are a Republican politician, you are very likely to be defeated in a Republican primary the next time you run for re-election, whereas if you accept it, then you go along to get along. The main thing that a politician wants is to get reelected, Democrat, Republican, anybody. The incentives now on the Republican side have become to accept a delusion and to endorse that delusion in order to preserve your victory in the next election. This is like the worst feedback loop. Then you have a huge network of conservative media that basically enforce that incentive system with a vengeance. Tucker Carlson is making Ted Cruz the past few days look like a pathetic-- It's hard to describe because Cruz questioned the legitimacy of the insurrectionists at the Capitol. He's made Cruz publicly apologize in what could only be described as a pathetic exhibition by any politician.
Kai Wright: We'll take a break. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with veteran political journalist, a New York Times Columnist Thomas Edsall about his recent column, "How to Tell When Your Country is Past the Point of No Return." We'll be right back to take more of your calls. I want to know where you're at on a scale of 1 to 10 in your concern about our democracy, stay with us.
Kousha Navidar: Hey everyone, this is Kousha. I'm a producer. A couple of weeks ago, we did an episode about Yalda, the celebration that happens during winter solstice. Definitely check it out. During that episode, we asked you how you were going to celebrate the solstice. One listener, Fran, wrote to us about her plans. Here's what she said. "For me, Solstice is a turning inward to embrace the long nights rather than celebrating the return of the light. So much in our Western culture, or perhaps even world culture at this point is to shun the dark and party long and hard. Perhaps my age, 70, has a great deal to do with my choosing the quiet and the dark.
I will enjoy a few Zoom gatherings today, so will be connected with others too." Thanks, Fran for that message. We also got a video recording from a listener, Ricardo, who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine. It's late at night and he's celebrating by safely burning a small fire outside.
Ricardo: There you go frustrations. Come see you on fire. A new year is coming.
Kousha Navidar: Thanks all of you for listening and talking to us, and we're hoping that happens even more in 2022. If you've got something to say, send us a message. Audio, video, written, it's all good. The address is email@example.com. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Kai Wright: Welcome back this The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm joined this week by New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall. We're talking about his recent column with the arresting headline, "How to Tell When Your Country is Past the Point of No Return." Thomas has been talking to political scientists and sociologists about this question. The answer that a lot of them have told him, in short, is hyper-partisanship, that our partisan affiliations have trumped all other issues for us. When party affiliation trumps all other concerns, if you'll pardon the pun, we find ourselves in a difficult situation.
We have one tweet, somebody said, "Never mind, I'm at an 11 felt this way since 2000, when Gore conceded to Bush, despite being the victor. I voted for Nader by the way. The dearth of a viable third-party is a big part of our downfall." That's Stephen Cornson. Let's go to Joan in Franklin Lakes. Joan, welcome to the show.
Joan: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Where would you rank yourself, Joan?
Joan: I rank myself at least an eight, and the reason why is based on the Constitution. As citizens, we all should understand the constitution, that we pledge to the flag is typically not specifically to the Constitution. Senators and Congresspeople have pledged an oath to uphold the Constitution. What I see, what we all I should see, is that the vast majority of the Republicans have broken that oath, very consciously, and they're not about to change it. If they and that party do not support the Constitution, how can we have a democracy?
Kai Wright: I want to ask also, Joan, how personal is this for you because Thomas and I were talking before the break about just how much energy there is or is not amongst most people outside of people who are political professionals, about the state of democracy itself. Set aside electoral politics and which party from just the idea of democracy, how personal does that feel to you, and do you feel like people in your circle, if you're an eight, that other people are at an eight, or is it background noise to most people?
Joan: It's background noise to most people. I can come to tears thinking about it. I participated in a virtual, what do we call it, demonstration on Thursday night. I also have lived through the 60s, and have gone to demonstrations. As the weather warms up, I will go to more demonstrations on this subject and I'll try to get my friends to do it as well. We have to go to the streets about it. This is about defending our country.
Kai Wright: Thank you, Joan. Let's hear from Spencer in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Spencer, welcome to the show.
Spencer: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Where would you rank yourself on a 1 to 10 scale?
Spencer: Between a seven and an eight depending upon what news headlines I see back there.
Kai Wright: Why? Why are you at a seven or eight? Why are you that high?
Spencer: The things that frustrate me the most these days are a combination of the rhetoric that comes out of the legislative branch, along with the laws and the decisions that come out of both the legislative and the judiciary. It's a situation where it seems almost like a scope creep, or a general escalation of things either going way too far to the right or occasionally way too far to the left, although the latter is definitely a minority compared to the former. Some people were talking about how, I believe, it was a previous caller who talked about that their anxiety began with Gore losing to Bush. For me, it was the outcome of Citizens United.
The premise that, as I believe Romney said, corporations are people too. That right then and there showed me the beginnings of how we could discount the premise of what it means to be a citizen in this country, and that businesses could go ahead and be of more value for the long-term growth of the country than its own citizens. Fast forward that now a decade, two decades later, and we're seeing discussions about voting rights being suppressed or curtailed. The fact that we had the Supreme Court overturn the Voting Rights Act with the rationale, I believe, it was Chief Justice Roberts, effectively saying, "Well, since it's no longer raining, we don't need an umbrella."
Kai Wright: They said that race is no longer impacts our elections.
Spencer: Exactly. When we have situations like that, most ordinary people on the street, they're going ahead, and they're looking at these irregularly shaped pieces of cardboard, and they can't quite figure out what they all represent. When you put enough of them down on a table together, you realize it's the foundations of a puzzle. When it completes, I don't know whether or not any of us are going to like the end result n texture.
Kai Wright: Spencer, I'm going to stop you there for time. Thomas Spencer says he traces this back to Citizens United. In all of your years and years now of watching American politics and American democracy in general, what about you? Where do you think was the turning point? If you too, you said you're at a seven and a half on your concern about the health of our democracy, where would you look back and say, this is where things started to turn?
Thomas Edsall: Oh, I think it goes back even farther than that. The whole process that we're in now began in the 1960s, in my view, first for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the first time that Democrats and Republicans became identified, one as the party of racial liberalism, one is the party of racial conservatism. Then, there was the split between the parties that grew up over the Women's Rights Movement, particularly the constitutional amendment proposing equal rights for both men and women, which at first was bipartisan, but then became quite partisan.
Then there have been the whole culture war issues over the sexual revolution, including matters of gay rights. Then all these have slowly divided the two parties into two very separate camps. I think things like Citizens United may sound like a stretch but I would argue and it's a little too harder. It's cutting right, that Citizens United and other developments you see now are really outgrowths of these separations that began way back when, and it's been an ongoing, what is it? A 50 or 55-year process, that's consumed America and become increasingly divisive.
It's produced a situation where ultimately we have two warring camps where both sides see the other as a hostile enemy. Hostile to their values, hostile to their personal lives, to their religious beliefs, to their beliefs, and the obligations that men and women have to family and children. The divide is extraordinarily wide and the sense of threat. This whole concept of threat activation, I think, it's called by political scientists, but one where the very idea of having a Democrat come into a Republican community or vice versa, produces a sense of an alien force has entered your world.
This has created this division that is now reaching the point of becoming insuperable, which is why I'm at a seven and a half or so. It's very hard to correct these developments. Neither side wants to go into a negotiation with the other. When that's the circumstance, you don't have grounds for reducing conflict in trying to achieve consensus.
Kai Wright: How do you-- Part of what I'm hearing in there, and what I've read in your work is that this consensus amongst the political scientists, again, that it is just the way that partisanship has displaced all other things, and that your allegiance to your given party, and that this is, according to the political scientists, true for both Republicans and Democrats, that your allegiance to your given party overrides other issues or other thoughts that you might have that then makes it impossible to stop a party's movement towards extremism.
My question becomes, and it's a genuine question, is how are we able to separate out the conversation about democracy itself from that partisan conversation? I struggle with this because I don't have a different framework for it as we experience or do we access our democracy through the partisan system. One of the parties has gone down this road. What do you think, can we separate out these things in the public discourse?
Thomas Edsall: First, I would take a slightly different take. I don't think partisanship has overridden these other differences. I think partisanship has basically encompassed those differences. You've become divided by party on such a wide range of things, your belief in the status of women, your belief in racial equity, your belief in religion, or being an atheist. All these things together have become integrated into partisanship, which is what made has made polarization so difficult to deal with because it has become so encompassing of your whole identity.
The way people now put all things into their identity, as a Democrat or a Republican that they did not use to do. That is where, by compromising in those circumstances, you're compromising on your own sense of self, your own sense, purpose, your own sense of who you are and where you are, your identity. It's very hard to do that. There are a lot of experiments going on now trying to get people to talk and meet together. If you have contact with people from the other side, does that lessen your degree of polarization? The problem is that those conversations often take place with people who want to lessen their-- The problem is that most people don't want to lessen their hostility to the other.
Kai Wright: It's a good referendum on your own personal identity. Let's hear from Lauren in the Bronx. Lauren, welcome to the show.
Lauren: Thank you. My comment is that one of the reasons or the main reason that there's no mobilization as there was in the 60s, that there's no leadership of any protest group. Part of that is because Joe Biden did get the presidency. Had he been denied the presidency, I think you would have seen him lead people in the streets protesting, but he got it. I think there needs to be a formulated specifically focused cause that people can get behind. I think you would get people marching.
Kai Wright: Oh, I think we lost Lauren, but I got the point that part of the urgency was lost in Joe Biden's victory. Let's hear from Brian in Harlem. Brian, welcome to the show.
Brian: Hey, Kai. Can you hear me?
Kai Wright: I can hear you. Where would you put yourself on 1 to 10?
Brian: Well, if I have confidence in the Democratic's strategy to win the next election, about a three, but I would say about an eight. I don't have any confidence at all, but I do have a semi solution.
Kai Wright: Let's hear it.
Brain: At least a partial solution Democrats in Republican states should register as Republicans and vote in Republican primaries, a mass movement to do so.
Kai Wright: A mass movement to do so. You see party swapping. Well, if nothing else that would be--
Brian: On that part, like in Georgia, it's an open primary, so they just vote. They won't even have to change. I think you have to make a choice to vote in either the Democratic or Republican, but if all of a sudden it's not, and a lot of people hate Trump in the Republican party, but they kowtow to him because they're afraid of being primary. If you could move over that fear, you might get less partisanship. You might get centrists Republicans running, but it will take a lot of people to do it.
Kai Wright: Well, Brian, we're going to give you the last word on that one solution, but listen to everybody who-- we've got a ton of calls about this, and we haven't been able to get to all of you. I want you to send me an email, record what you've got to say, and send me an email to email@example.com. We're going to return to this conversation at some length throughout this election year. Thomas Edsall is a veteran political journalist who writes a weekly column for the New York Times on politics, demographics, and inequality. Thomas, thanks for calling in with us tonight.
Thomas Edsall: My pleasure. Good to talk to you.
Kai Wright: We will talk to you again as well. A few weeks ago we did an experiment in which I asked-- which we had all of you look at what kind of political content came up in of our own YouTube search engines. This is related to the divisiveness that we're talking about here. We were trying to test out what they call the filter bubble, what lives inside, what we get when we go online, inside our filter bubble. When several of us got some unexpected results, it led me to ask a whole nother question. Is the far-right just better than everybody else at getting content in front of us on social media?
Up next, we answer that question.
Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright. Just before the new year, we began a new inquiry on this show. We're thinking about the ways we all talk and engage and take in new information, online, information about political and social debates. Yes, but also about each other and our differences. Can we better understand how the digital Town Square operates today and how we all show up in it, and thus maybe use it better. Previously, we talked about the so-called filter bubbles, that search engines create for us. We had you do an assignment on YouTube to look at your own filter bubble.
Several of us found out that Topher a pro-Trump rapper was winning the YouTube search game in our feeds.
This is where we make a stand, no more give or take
March around the Capitol, storm the city gates.
Kai Wright: That made us ask another question about political content, specifically online, which is just like, is the right just better at getting content in front of us? Our Senior Digital Producer, Kousha Navidar, has been thinking about that question and has come back with some more information. Hey, Kousha, what have you got for us?
Kousha Navidar: Well, you know the drill. I started with one question and it turned into a hundred, but there's a story. We have to go back to April of 2020, and we have to go on Twitter. Kai, you've got a Twitter account, obviously, lots of political content on there.
Kai Wright: Indeed.
Kousha Navidar: For a while, Twitter has been asking whether its algorithm amplifies that political content, you see, and they have actually put action to words. Two Aprils ago they helped launch this huge study to explore that very question.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Kousha Navidar: Kai, this is really a big deal. Just the fact that they've even done this study is special. I actually spoke with the reporter who first wrote about it, Anna Kramer from Protocol.
Anna Kramer: It's extremely unique in the social media space to have a team that is so public about their effort to examine the ethics, the transparency of the accountability behind the machine learning algorithms that inform how social media works. That study question exists because there's a lot of surmising out in the world about some people say that conservatives are oppressed on social media or that the political left gets a bonus point on social media. Those kinds of questions flutter about in the zeitgeist, and this was intended to help begin to answer that question for Twitter specifically.
Kai Wright: That actually does sound like an impressive study. What does it actually do? How's it work?
Kousha Navidar: Again, the goal was to find out how Twitter's algorithm might amplify political content from politicians or media outlets, and if there's any difference in how much amplification happens based on whether the content comes from the left or the right. Between April and August of 2020, these researchers look at millions of tweets that fall under one of two categories. One is tweets from elected officials across seven countries, including the US, and two is tweets with links to news articles in the US.
Kai Wright: You got elected officials and media.
Kousha Navidar: Exactly. They compare how those tweets get amplified among millions of users who have a personalized timeline versus millions of users who don't have a personalized timeline. Kai, do you know what I'm talking about here?
Kai Wright: Yes, I do. I like it on my own feed. It's just like right there on your homepage. You can look at either tweets in real-time or you can switch over and look at what the algorithm says you should be looking at.
Kousha Navidar: Yes, exactly. Here's how Anna describes it.
Anna Kramer: As a journalist, for example, when I use Twitter, I do it both ways all the time. The algorithmic curation of the feed, this is like a setting you can toggle on your homepage, will allow Twitter to decide for me what I should see first based on a complex series of machine learning designs that interact with one another, or I can toggle it and what I see is based on when it was tweeted.
I see the most recent thing first. I see the thing that was posted 10 seconds before that, et cetera, all the way down. Any person can switch between those two timelines whenever they would like. For Twitter, it's very, very easy to go and compare. What do you see when, if you have your version of your feed is chronological versus your version is algorithmic.
Kai Wright: That's neat. Like in the study, the accounts without that personalized feed, I guess then become the control group. Right?
Kousha Navidar: Right. That way you get a peek into how the personalized algorithm might amplify different types of content differently.
Kai Wright: What did they find?
Kousha Navidar: Two big findings first tweets from elected officials left or right get some boost with the algorithm.
Anna Kramer: We immediately know that for some reason, whether it's the users or the algorithm, political con performs well online. The second finding is that both content from right-leaning political officials, as well as content from outlets that are designated to be right-leaning, also performs better in terms of engagement, in terms of how often people see it on the Twitter algorithmic timeline compared to left-leaning content.
Kousha Navidar: Let's pause and digest because that's a lot. There are two big findings, political content from elected officials left and right gets some boost with the Twitter algorithm. The second big finding, that content from the right gets a higher amplification compared to the left. That's where it starts because, according to Anna, there's this whole other next line of questioning that this study didn't try to answer, but that is just as interesting of a set of takeaways.
Anna Kramer: What's extremely critical here and what we haven't gotten into though, is that this study examines what happens, not why it happens. The reason for doing this is because it's extremely difficult to figure out whether you see content more because the algorithm favors it, or whether the user favors the content more, in turn, teaching the algorithm to show it what it favors.
This is incredible, it's like the most important thing you can understand about how algorithms work. As you need to figure out if the way the algorithm is designed creates a bias that doesn't already exist, or whether it essentially has users decide what's interesting and then reinforces what's interesting for them.
Kousha Navidar: To be clear, Kai, the study, doesn't try to answer why the right might get or amplification. What Anna is saying is crucial here. We don't know the why, but we definitely talked about some theoreticals because they do exist they're out there.
Anna Kramer: When we talk about algorithmic amplification, all we mean is that the average person is probably going to see or interact with more right-leaning content. The why is the part that there are so many possibilities, perhaps there are more people who are online who are right-leaning. As somebody who experiences a lot of left-leaning Twitter, that's hard to believe, but that could be a possibility. It's also entirely possible that right-leaning figures post content that is just more engaging than left-leaning figures to the average user.
It's very clear that content that is inflammatory in some way performs better, whether you blame an algorithm or other people for it. There's other research out there that does suggest that right-leaning politicians and political parties are much better at generating that content. It's also just about being internet savvy and using the internet well. If you look at the way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram and Twitter, it creates extremely high levels of engagement because she's very comfortable. She understands how the people who vote for her and engage with her actually use the platform.
You could say the same thing about the way Donald Trump used Twitter. The thing on an individual level it's becomes even more clear that like skill at understanding the way people interact with social media directly informs what you see and how you interact with it. I think you could probably say with that, to some extent, right-leaning political actors are just better at this. What you do with that information is a much harder question.
Kai Wright: Those are interesting theories, and maybe alarming ones be because if people making extreme right-wing content are better at it, that has huge social implications, and they do seem to be better at it. It's getting around more.
Kousha Navidar: Well, that's a theory, but to be clear, since a lot of people might actually be wondering about how this all applies to extreme ideologies, this study didn't find that extreme ideology gets amplified more than mainstream ones. Again, it's not trying to answer the why, it's just, "Here the data that we found." In terms of that data, what we're talking about here is what we call group effects. You can't apply these findings to individual accounts. The study's looking at trends, not your individual Twitter account. Got it.
Kai Wright: Nonetheless, what does this mean for me as an individual when I go on Twitter?
Kousha Navidar: Yes, absolutely. We talk a lot about how Tech companies and policies need to change. Absolutely there's so much to explore there, but we also have to start talking about ourselves. When we are trying to point out what's wrong, can you consider the thumb instead of only the finger, can you look at yourself, basically?
Kai Wright: Ooh, you're going great school at this Koudha.
Kousha Navidar: Kai, this is making me think how this is bigger than politics. You remember in our very first episode, we talked about the internet is our town square, right?
Kai Wright: Right.
Kousha Navidar: This is our third installment of the segment and I'm already seeing a pattern emerge with how we interact on that town square. Every expert we've talked to so far has said some version of, "You can't just blame the algorithm or the company. It's way more complicated than that." That again is one takeaway I got talking to Anna.
Anna Kramer: There's a societal responsibility for all of us to be talking about this more, not just blaming companies or politicians, but like, why is it that we, as everyone, are like this on the internet and what can we be doing better maybe it's something? Maybe you need to be studying this in elementary school, "This is how you use social media," or your parents need to be teaching you, but there's something here we're not doing.
Kousha Navidar: This is a lot of what Anna's talking about to me. There's no big fix coming from somebody else, at least not yet. We also need to learn how to use these tools more effectively and how to be more literate with the technology that we use every single day. We've already seen how that plays out with our political content online. Let's go a little bit bigger next time. Let's see how we can make other issues like childhood education and how different groups and identities are treated online. What can we learn there with how the internet is affecting our lives? Generally, how can we make life online just a little less crappy?\
Kai Wright: Thanks Kousha.
Kousha Navidar: Yes. Thank you.
Kai Wright: Of course, we want to hear more from you directly about this whole conversation Kousha is off and running in his exploration of how we can make the town square of the internet in general and social media in particular, just a happier and healthier place. Do you have a question he might be able to answer about that? Send it to us. Record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios.
Our theme music was written by Hannah Brown and performed by the Outer-Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul. Milton Ruiz was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Boutin, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright, and you can find me live next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening, and take care of yourselves.
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