Political attacks on social media tied to rising cynicism

(Credit: Getty Images)

Political anger and cynicism are rising in the United States and in many democracies worldwide, and both are associated with exposure to political attacks on social media, a new study shows.

Americans use social media to find information and news about politics, but much of the content they see in their feeds is hostile, uncivil, and attacking, says lead author Ariel Hasell, assistant professor of communication and media and an affiliate of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Hasell and colleagues investigated whether exposure to political attacks on social media is associated with political cynicism, and if so, whether emotions like anger and anxiety play a role in this process.

They found that people who were exposed to more political attacks on social media were more politically cynical, and that perceived exposure to these attacks was associated with more anger about the state of the US, which was subsequently related to greater levels of political cynicism.

Their results, based on a panel survey of 1,800 American adults fielded during the 2020 election, appear in the International Journal of Press/Politics.

Cynicism and democracy

“It’s important to understand how feelings of cynicism emerge because we’re seeing many democratic governments facing crises of legitimacy,” Hasell says. “Our findings provide some of the first evidence of how exposure to political attacks on social media might relate to political cynicism in the context of a US presidential election.”

Hasell and colleagues define political cynicism as an attitude that’s rooted in distrust of political actors’ motivations. It goes further than healthy skepticism, they say, because it involves wholesale rejection of people and processes in democracy, and an underlying belief that politicians are guided by corrupt, self-serving, personal interests, rather than service to the public good.

“Cynicism can be a rational response to actual corruption and breaches of trust by those in power,” says coauthor Audrey Halversen, doctoral student in the communication and media department. “But it is a matter of concern among scholars of democracy because of its potential to delegitimize democratic processes, reinforce negative attitudes, distort people’s interpretations of political information, and cause some citizens to withdraw from politics.”

Pew Research Center polls show the American public’s confidence in government has reached its lowest point in decades, and perceptions that self-interest and corruption are guiding government action have bred cynicism across the political spectrum. The new study tested the theory that this increase in cynicism might be linked to political social media use.

Angry politics on social media

Political content on social media is often toxic, and we can expect to see political hostility surge online this summer and fall as we approach the presidential election, Hasell says.

Prior research has shown that political attacks communicated by independent actors (rather than candidates) can be especially influential in shaping political beliefs. Social media algorithms reward and amplify attacks precisely because they’re engaging. Studies show this makes outrage more potent and visible, giving users a warped view of what the public believes.

“If your main source of news is social media, you are more likely to perceive politics as hostile and angry,” Hasell says. “And beyond the feelings that political attacks provoke, it matters how people perceive and read the temperature of ‘public emotions’ because this can impact assessments about the country’s well-being and its ability to solve problems and accomplish goals.”

The panel survey in the study asked participants about their social media usage and whether they had been exposed to political attacks against Trump and Republicans, or against Biden and Democrats, on social media. It included a set of questions to measure political cynicism among respondents, and asked about their feelings about the state of the US as a country.

Public anger in American politics has reached a fevered pitch in the last decade, and data show it is rising among American voters heading into the first presidential election since the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

A 2019 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found nearly 7 in 10 Americans reported being angry about the political establishment and a 2023 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that about a quarter of Americans agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” This is up from 15% in 2021.

Anxiety is another negative emotion, which can be elicited by uncertainty, risk aversion, and threats, especially if they are vague, unknown, or perceived to be beyond one’s control, the researchers say. Political fearmongering and social media toxicity can drive anxiety during a presidential election by creating uncertainty about political outcomes and by creating a generalized sense of political hostility that is beyond an individual’s control.

“Negative emotions are not necessarily bad for democracy,” Hasell says. “Emotions like anxiety and anger can drive people to the polls, motivate advocacy, and get people to seek and think more deeply about political information. But relentless negativity about the state of a country ‘under threat’ can also make people frustrated, disgruntled and disengaged. Anger can affect our ability to see things as they are, and make measured decisions that are important in a democracy.”

The study found evidence that exposure to political attacks on social media contributes to anxiety, anger, and political cynicism, but that anger is the emotion that relates to cynicism.

“As more people turn to social media for news and information, it’s likely that they’ll be more repeatedly exposed to political attacks, which may further promote political cynicism,” Hasell says. “This is concerning because cynicism can make it harder for people to make sense of political information. It can lead people down a road of apathy and disengagement, or toward fringe parties and antidemocratic forms of participation.”

Can citizens who use social media do anything to break that pattern?

“An easy way to avoid getting angry and cynical is to be mindful about focusing on nonhostile, civil dialogue,” Hasell says. “If you are seeing a lot of hostility in your social media, you can think about re-curating and unfollowing people who are fomenting this kind of hostility. We don’t find that social media use in itself is making people angry and cynical, it has to do with how we decide to use it.”

Source: University of Michigan