Researchers discuss "Parties and Partisanship in the Era of Twitter and Trump"


There were no White House press briefings Friday, but still President Trump had plenty of public comments, issued directly to his 51 million followers on Twitter. His flurry of tweets about James Comey, the DNC lawsuit, and North Korea, were retweeted thousands of times in just minutes.


"It's a revolution almost like the revolution TV brought about several decades ago," said Eric Schickler, Chair of U.C. Berkeley's political science department.


Political science experts from universities across the nation were invited to campus Friday to discuss social media's impact on American politics at the Travers Political Science Conference titled "Parties and Partisanship in The Era of Twitter and Trump."


One topic was voters' increasing partisanship and decreasing trust of others.


"The biggest problem in a lot of ways in American democracy now is the sense of polarization and party warfare where each side sees the other as just inherently evil," said Schickler.


Social media has opened up a new side of politics, where the President of the United States can speak directly to the public through his personal Twitter account via tweets that are considered official White House statements. The President's tweets have included threats to bomb Russia, Syria, and North Korea. He also has taken to Twitter to promote his policies, discredit mainstream media, praise politicians and world leaders, as well as berate and call some politicians names.


Studies show that social media has become increasingly prevalent as a source for voters to get information on politics and politicians.


"About 67% of Americans get at least some of their political news from social media, so I'm not talking about I'm talking about Facebook and Twitter," said Samara Klar, an assistant professor of political science who studies partisanship at the University of Arizona.


Klar says President Trump's use of social media has ignited grassroots political action on both sides.


"I think the fact that he's so outspoken, how he's very divisive, he's not afraid to say things that divide people, is motivating not only his supporters but even more so his opponents," said Klar.


Researchers warned about the strong tendency for people to believe information that reinforces their own views and how that can lead to "echo-chambers" on social media platforms, reinforced by the micro-targeting of political ads.


"We really need to think hard about the line between when is that just providing people with what they want, versus when is that manipulation?" said Schickler.


Joshua Tucker, an NYU political science professor and co-director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation Lab, said looking to the future, companies should do more to flag information generated by automated bots and not real people, as well as develop algorithms to downgrade content from fake news sites that shows up on web search results.


"What I'm most concerned about is that this begins to evolve out of the text-based fake news and disinformation and it into the realm of things like images and videos," said Tucker.


One video, released Wednesday by Buzzfeed illustrates the technological advancements that can allow people to alter the content of videos.


The video first shows an image of former President Barack Obama.


The video appears to show Mr. Obama saying "President Trump is a total and complete ******", but then it reveals a split screen, showing director Jordan Peele literally putting words into Mr. Obama's mouth through an altered video of the former President.


"Now see, I would never say these things, at least not in a public address. But someone else would. Someone, like Jordan Peele," the altered video of Mr. Obama says, adding, "This is a dangerous time. We need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet."


"It will become harder and harder for voters to evaluate what is correct about the candidates that they have to make decisions about," said Professor Tucker.


Many experts noted that social media platforms are working to flag automated bots and fake news sites.


Social media users can also have a big impact by reflecting more on what to retweet and share, and by flagging fake news, even if it benefits their own cause.


"One of the big questions out there, is whether or not as a society we can start to develop norms," said Professor Tucker, "When Republicans call out fake news that helps Republicans and Democrats call out fake news that helps Democrats."


KTVU reporter Jana Katsuyama contributed to this report.

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