Politics And Social Media: NAU Professor Says Legal Battles Lie Ahead

Feb 9, 2021

 

Credit AP File | David Ake

Today is the start of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. The U.S. House of Representatives has accused him of fueling a deadly insurrection at the Capitol — in part by using Twitter to invite his supporters to Washington. Dr. Marija Bekafigo is a political scientist at Northern Arizona University; she studies the relationship between social media and politics. She spoke with KNAU’s Angela Gervasi about the polarizing, even dangerous effects of that combination.

Could you describe what you're studying as a political scientist?

A lot of my research deals with social media and Twitter. So I started studying Twitter about eight or 10 years ago now. 

I've just been looking at voter behavior, and what social media does to cause us to be more politicized and polarized — especially those people who go on Twitter to ... get their news or to talk about politics.

What are some solid ways you've seen Twitter as a tool for polarization?

You know, it's easy to find like-minded people on Twitter. 

Recently we've seen you can go on there and find these groups that are really not part of our typical societal norms like QAnon, and other conspiracy theorists. 

The other thing about Twitter and of course other social media sites: every site has their own algorithm to present content to you that you care about, or they think you care about.

Your viewpoints keep getting reinforced even through their own algorithms. 

 

How do you see conversations around free speech, social media, misinformation playing out past this impeachment trial?

So, the courts are definitely going to have to play a role in whether these social media sites can block people or not and block speech or not. 

I think it's just really, at the base level, it’s really dangerous for Twitter and other social media sites to be blocking people’s speech.

It can’t just be what the majority thinks. 

But, I mean, ultimately I think that the courts often hold up free speech. 

With Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, her Twitter, her social media presence was a huge part of that conversation. What kind of role would you say social media played in that — removing this representative from congressional committees?

It's definitely played a huge role because now, we have evidence of what people are saying. You can't just get away with saying, you know, that, “Oh, the media played this clip out of context.” 

Not only should members of Congress or potential elected officials watch what they say. 

So should everyone. It doesn't mean you can't say what your beliefs are. But just know that that's a public record. You can't deny those things that are in writing.

Are there any best practices you can suggest for information consumers to make sure we're getting accurate information?

I think it's important for people to view both sides.

If you are typically an MSNBC news viewer, you should go to Fox News and see what they're saying.

But not only that, do your own research. I mean, so many of these conspiracy theories are easily fact-checked. Or, there are websites like PolitiFact.

And maybe even more people need to call their elected officials and call their members of Congress. I mean, they have staff that are there that are paid to help citizens, to help them, you know, figure out not only how their government works, but what is real and what's not real.

Thank you for sharing that. That’s really fascinating.

You’re welcome!

 

Dr. Marija Bekafigo is a political scientist based at Northern Arizona University. 

 

This conversation has been condensed for brevity and clarity.