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Recent research from the University of Michigan highlights a concerning trend: the increase in political anger and cynicism influenced by exposure to hostile and uncivil attacks on social media. This phenomenon suggests that constant exposure to such negativity might alter individuals’ perceptions of the political landscape, potentially shaping a more hostile and cynical view.

Political attacks on social media fuels political cynicism

The recent study published in the International Journal of Press/Politics explores how exposure to political attacks on social media relates to political cynicism. Led by Ariel Hasell, an assistant professor at UM’s Institute for Social Research, the study indicates that individuals exposed to greater political attacks on social media tend to harbor higher levels of political cynicism.

Political cynicism surpasses healthy skepticism and involves a complete rejection of democratic processes, perceiving politicians as driven by corrupt motives rather than serving the public good. Such cynicism can undermine democracy, distort political information interpretation, and discourage political engagement.

The researchers emphasize the importance of understanding the emergence of cynicism, particularly in light of legitimacy crises faced by many democratic governments. They suggest that exposure to political attacks on social media may contribute to political cynicism, especially during events like a U.S. presidential election.

Social media exacerbates cynicism due to toxic politics 

The study explored how exposure to political attacks on social media during the 2020 election impacted Americans’ emotions and attitudes towards politics. Findings indicate a correlation between perceived exposure to political attacks and increased anger about the state of the U.S., leading to heightened political cynicism. This trend is worrisome given existing levels of anger and hostility towards the political establishment in the U.S., as evidenced by surveys from 2019 and 2023.

Social media exacerbates anger and hostility, particularly through toxic political content. Algorithms prioritize and amplify attacks due to their engagement, making outrage more prominent. This distorts users’ perceptions of public opinion. Research indicates that heavy social media users perceive politics as more hostile and angry. This perception influences assessments of the country’s well-being and its capacity to address challenges.