Partisan media ecosystems and polarization in the 2020 U.S. election

The modern political era is defined by polarization. Democratic and Republican members of Congress are more likely than any time in the last century to vote in partisan blocks on legislation. Watching NFL or wearing masks signifies individual partisan loyalties. Maybe most troubling is that affective polarization—increasing animosity between members of different political parties—is at a generational high. Meanwhile, social media platforms continued their ascendance as powerful gatekeepers of political information during the 2020 election campaign. While many critiques about social media’s role in our polarized system are warranted, social media has wrongly become the bogeyman of polarized tribalism.

Outrage about social media’s role in campaigning can be traced to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and discovery of attempted Russian election interference via bot networks in 2016. However, there is little evidence these events had consequential impact on the 2016 election. Despite this dearth of evidence, the argument laid out by documentaries like The Social Dilemma and countless feature articles is social media’s algorithmic and social recommendations narrow users’ perspectives, trapping them in an echo chamber resulting in increasing polarization.

On the contrary, the polarized 2020 election illustrated the reciprocal relationship between easily accessible partisan media ecosystems and their presidential candidates across platforms. The partisan systems on the right and left are not symmetric. The conservative media ecosystem centers around Fox News, but also includes online news sites, talk radio, and even fringe messageboards that proffer Q-Anon conspiracies, creating an environment ripe for polarization and misinformation. For example, conservative media amplified Trump’s messaging that Coronavirus would quickly disappear and absentee votes would not be properly counted. Thus, wearing masks and voting from home became polarized partisan identifiers. His observably false claims became central to the campaign and contributed to his defeat. Trump employed distinctly polarized rhetoric that demonized his political opponents, including some fellow Republicans. This echoed across the whole right-wing ecosystem.

The liberal media ecosystem included considerably more diverse viewpoints. Many mainstream news organizations confronted Trump’s polarization and demonization by abandoning norms of unbiased coverage and tacked leftward, clearly favoring Biden. Yet, these news organizations were more likely to adhere to journalistic norms of fact-based reporting and made room for conservative viewpoints. This mirrored Biden’s more centrist vision of a science-based administration that would adhere to pre-Trump political norms. This less polarizing messaging eventually won the election.

While Trump used Twitter as his main communication platform, the vast majority of Americans do not read his tweets. Instead, most of his base learn about Trump’s Twitter messages through news coverage, from interpersonal communication, or on other online platforms. Twitter is a tool for Trump, but he could leave in favor of another social media site, message board, or website. Regardless of where he lands, the conservative media ecosystem could choose to amplify his voice. But, when Fox turned on Trump, as they did on election night by being the first to call Biden the winner in Arizona, Trump had a harder time getting national traction.

Most Americans are apathetic to or even repelled by news and politics. The modern information environment, including the internet and social media, provides endless free and cheap non-news content. The lack of attention to journalism comes at a time when less polarized local news organizations have become victims of the fragmented media system, including the internet. This silent majority, detached from politics, encounter news incidentally in conversation or while browsing social media. However, people who momentarily linger on Fox News or MSNBC or speak with likeminded friends are far less likely to encounter opposing viewpoints than when they scroll through their social media newsfeed.

Social media plays a gatekeeping role by filtering users’ newsfeeds. Facebook and Twitter deserve some credit for making more effort to identify and label misinformation compared to 2016. They were more active in identifying coordinated manipulative bot networks. But social media can be problematic for polarization in many ways, including allowing politically extreme ideas to seep into public discourse and a lack of consistent application of their own moderation policies. They grant alarmingly little transparency to allow regulators or researchers to monitor information flows. While these issues deserve attention and continue to play a role in electoral campaigns, they are not the central story of polarization in 2020. Even if all the important problems surrounding social media’s role in news dissemination were solved, we’d still be stuck with a partisan and polarized electorate and partisan media ecosystems would remain entrenched. The reciprocal relationship where partisan ecosystems produce their candidates and the candidates’ ethos echo back across the ecosystems would persist.

The for-profit information economy, money in politics, rampant injustice and corruption, and growing inequality create an environment for polarization and tribalism to thrive. The polarized nature of our federal government is reciprocal in that it resists structural change and creates incentives for further “winner take all” power to prevail. We need political leadership, not transformation of our social media, to exit this cycle.