Social Impact

How the election affected society and communication across America

Panelists at ‘Hindsight 2016’ look at the influence of social media, the national expression of anger and what it all may mean going forward

November 17, 2016 Emily Gersema

For many Americans, the divisive debates are not over even though the election is. Thanksgiving will be an uncomfortable event as families and friends, divided politically, try to sit peacefully together over dinner.

On social media, however, there is no easy escape. The uncle you unfriended and unfollowed on Facebook and Twitter because of his political views is at the table — you can’t hide him from your timeline or block him.

At “Hindsight 2016,” a post-election event hosted Wednesday by USC Communications and the USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research, a panel of USC faculty and researchers gathered to discuss the election’s polarizing effect on American relationships, politics, society and psyche, as well as its implications for the future. The participants also reflected on what happened in the election, the influence of social media, and outrage and fear that has been expressed in recent days.

A key lesson, two of the panelists noted, was that social media, which was intended to help people connect with one another, instead has led to the emergence of echo chambers — social bubbles in which people only engage people with whom they agree while they avoid, block, disconnect or dismiss friends, relatives or contacts with different viewpoints.

Such behavior amounts to tribalism, noted psychologists on the panel, and they said it is troublesome when considering that a reasonable exchange of differing ideas and opinions are relevant for successful policymaking and governing.

“The major thing that social media was responsible for was this false sense of consensus, and what social media have given us is basically the ability to expand that perceived sense of consensus to the rest of the world,” said Morteza Dehghani, assistant professor of psychology and computer science at USC Dornsife and at the Brain and Creative Institute at USC. “Social media was not made to have echo chambers. It was made to connect with people. We impose our beliefs and our biases on social media to make these echo chambers.”

Us vs. them

Jesse Graham, associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsife and the principal investigator of the Values, Ideology and Morality Lab, added: “I have seen two different kinds of echo chambers. I saw a lot of partisan hostility — a lot of ‘us vs. them’ and ‘good vs. evil’ kind of thinking.”

Graham said what worries him now is that he sees indications of what he called “righteous rage” — people expressing anger about injustice either during or after the election are now very angry and hostile, even among friends who may share some of their views.

“Liberal friends are fighting about relatively minor issues like the safety pin thing,” he said.

Liberals are arguing whether to wear safety pins as a symbol of solidarity against abuse while critics dismiss it as “slacktivism” — demonstrating a point of view without taking substantive action.

Another day, another protest

Since Election Day, protests have become a near-daily occurrence in Los Angeles and cities around the country. Panelist Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said protest is healthy way for angry or upset citizens to express their concerns.

The election had an angry undertone among various voters, he noted.

Underneath most anger is fear.

Dan Schnur

“Underneath most anger is fear,” Schnur said. “The most important thing that happened in this election was just an extraordinary set of populist uprisings — one from the right and the left — against politics and establishments.”

In that respect, he said, president-elect Donald Trump and former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders were remarkably similar, representing supporters from the most extreme wings of their respective parties. Polls consistently showed that Trump was favored by white men who do not have college degrees and Sanders drew wide support from millennial voters.

“What I got out of this election is how frightened people look for solutions on the left or on the right,” Schnur said. “Desperate, frightened people do desperate, frightened things.”

Hernandez told the panel that the election press coverage was at times confusing. “Even as an informed individual, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was not,” he said. “When [Clinton] fell, for example. I couldn’t tell: Is she all right or is she not?”

“I cannot help as a woman but notice the gender dimension” of this election, said Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science, anthropology, public policy and law at USC Dornsife. “Hillary Clinton was seen as polarizing and even with so much support [the popular vote], she could not be elected.”

Dundes Renteln noted that Clinton has extensive experience in politics and was top of her class at Yale Law School.

“What would it take for a woman to be elected?” she said. “The fact that another candidate can say such disgusting and vulgar things and still be elected — that’s very difficult to accept. There’s a double standard that comes across in this election.”

‘Facebook is not to blame’

She added that the hate speech and ethnic slurs exchanged during and after the election are a reminder that the United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not regulate hate speech.

“The United States is so concerned with freedom of speech that we’re unwilling to impose sanctions on this, Dundes Renteln said. “There are consequences of that and we’re going to have to come to terms with how to protect civil liberties and civil rights.”

She added: “The protests have been portrayed in a negative way as people being upset about the election or they’re upset with the result or they’re sore losers, but I don’t think that’s a correct interpretation,” Dundes Renteln said. “It’s a positive thing. It’s the good side of free speech.”

Regardless of what lies ahead for the nation, Dehghani said it’s important that Americans become more aware of their tribal behavior — and its contribution to political and social division.

“The algorithms that Facebook provides us are extensions of ourselves and the things we would like to see,” Dehghani said. “The only way to get past this is to think more diversely — to read more news both from the left and the right. We have to try to be more educated.

“Facebook is not to blame. We have to blame ourselves.”