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It's the Internet, Dummy!

It's the Internet, Dummy!

From yoga mom to anti-vaxxer, our online algorithms are doing significantly more to radicalize and polarize us than Fox News. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

I’ve been reading a terrific new book by my former Stanford colleague Renée DiResta called Invisible Rulers. Renée was one of the founding members of the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), and for many years has been researching online disinformation. SIO began an Election Integrity Project with some other academic researchers in advance of the 2020 election, to look for sources of disinformation regarding the contest. Since most of this content was coming from the Right or from their foreign helpers, the Republicans who took over the House in 2022 made SIO a target; Jim Jordan, his committee, and other far-right influencers like Matt Taibbi and Michael Schallenberger went after SIO and DiResta in particular as part of a big government plot to “censor” conservatives. But this is a story for another post.

Ever since 2016 and the rise of MAGA Republicans, there has been an intensive discussion of why polarization was deepening so rapidly in the United States, and what was driving support for Donald Trump and his brand of populist nationalism. There were many possible theories, including globalization, economic inequality, political sorting by education, race, Fox News, and the like. Social media and the internet were always part of this equation, but it was not clear just how important this technology was compared to the other available explanations.

DiResta's new book has convinced me that the internet and social media were vastly more important drivers of polarization than I previously had believed. This is true despite the fact that numerous academic studies have concluded that social media has only deepened existing polarizations rather than persuading anyone to switch sides. The other factors I just mentioned were there, just as political polarization existed well before the rise of social media. But today’s polarization has a peculiarly toxic character that is new and hard to explain, in which extremist political attitudes are driven by the prevalence of conspiracy theories.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Conspiracy theories have themselves always existed—witness the talk of a global Communist conspiracy infiltrating American institutions promoted by folks like Joe McCarthy during the early Cold War. But today these theories have become far more widespread and mainstream. Witness the fact that some 70 percent of Republicans believe that Biden’s 2020 election was not legitimate, or that a majority of them believe that Covid vaccines are more harmful than helpful. Tim Alberta’s fascinating new book on the evolution of the evangelical movement in America notes that many conservative Christians believe that Biden and the Democrats want to shut their churches, and that the Covid-related public health church closures were just an opening shot in a long-term effort by progressives to undermine Christianity. Some 17 percent of Americans believe in some version of the QAnon narrative linking the Democrats to child sacrifice.

What DiResta's book helped me to understand was how profound a rupture has taken place in the way we consume media and process information. My generation grew up on network TV, newspapers, print magazines, and a media ecology built around a few star journalists and commentators. But more than half the country—indeed, an overwhelming majority of those under the age of, say, thirty-five, no longer get their information this way. They have moved almost entirely online, where TikTok, Instagram, and a host of sub-Reddits rule, or to older platforms like X (Twitter) or Facebook. According to a Pew survey, the number of TikTok users getting their news from that platform has from increased from 22 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in 2023. This is even more true of younger people; one third of U.S. adults under thirty now get their news from that platform.   

Even if social media has not convinced many partisans to switch sides, it has deepened, shaped, and pathologized the way they think about politics. Former partisans who were inclined to disagree with the policies of the other side now believe outlandish conspiracy theories, theories that simply didn't exist prior to the rise of social media.

The legacy-media bias on the part of older Americans like me has itself distorted our view of the new social reality. Liberals have long denounced Fox News as a source of right-wing extremism, but Fox’s audience is old, with only 1.7 million regular viewers, and its importance greatly exaggerated. Seventy-eight-year-old Donald Trump himself, who grew up watching television, is typical of the Fox demographic. Past and present commentators like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, or Sean Hannity are seen as hugely influential. The latter's show gets around 2.1 million regular viewers. Compare that to Joe Rogan, who does not appear on TV, and who has flirted with anti-vax and stolen election theories. Rogan’s podcast, "The Joe Rogan Experience", has almost seventeen million YouTube subscribers, has racked up 200 million downloads per month, and stands at a collective ten billion views overall. It is safe to say that Rogan has far more reach than any legacy media commentator, but he is not regularly quoted because older liberal opinion-makers are not YouTube devotees. 

But this is just scratching the surface. DiResta's book outlines how even Joe Rogan is eclipsed by other online influencers with far greater reach. Here is a test: Ask an over-fifty friend or colleague if they’ve ever heard of the following: Charli d’Amelio, Khaby Lame, Keffals, or Candace Owens. They’re most likely to have heard of Owens, a Black MAGA influencer with 4.6 million Instagram followers, who appears on the right-wing outlet Daily Wire and surfaces occasionally in mainstream media. But her reach is nothing compared to d’Amelio, Lame, and Keffals, who have 151, 162, and 183 million followers each, rivaling the numbers of Elon Musk followers with his 176 million. Ask any of those over-fifty friends who disbelieve in the importance of social media how much time they themselves spend on YouTube, TikTok, X, or Facebook, or how often they have posted comments, as opposed to reading op-eds in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal

Invisible Rulers also lays out very vividly the ways in which the self-interest of the big internet platforms has contributed to polarization. Their recommendation algorithms promote virality and are very good at putting extremists of one domain in touch with extremists in others. This explains how anti-vax narratives spread among yoga moms, who were presumably online just for health reasons. It turns out that a prominent yoga guru started promoting anti-vax theories, and the algorithm decided that if you liked yoga content, you’d probably like anti-vax content as well. Influencers quickly figured out how these algorithms worked and realized that they could boost their followers (and, for many, their incomes) by posting content that is over-the-top, salacious, or at odds with prevailing wisdom even if untrue. There was a recent example of this, when the above-mentioned Candace Owens asserted online that French President Emmanuel Macron’s wife was really a man. This ludicrous comment got so many eyeballs that it was then picked up by the legacy media.

This online world, hidden to many people who grew up in a different media environment, is one of the great contributors to contemporary polarization. The ability of ordinary people to use the internet to reach gigantic audiences previously reachable only by large media organizations has been democratizing in one respect, but has had dire effects in others. Credibility and truth, as Renée points out, are no longer the products of institutions that follow rules to weed out bad information, but instead come from the number of people who believe a particular narrative. Last summer, I was in a nice restaurant in Kazakhstan, where a small crowd gathered around a table near ours. The reason, I was told, was that a famous Kazakh influencer was dining there. Influencers have now gone global. Donald Trump may have contributed to polarization and disinformation, but the problem will persist long after he’s gone.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: Invisible Rulers by Renée DiResta