Caleb Gardner’s former Twitter account has 78 million followers. That account is @BarackObama. As the previous digital director for Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots political organization, Gardner was in charge of operating the president’s Twitter handle and other social media outlets. On Friday, Gardner spoke to Northwestern undergraduates about social media, the 2016 election and polarization in the political media.
Gardner began by admonishing the state of digital discourse in the current election, and implored everyone to take a step back and begin to reintroduce “civility” to social media.
"The thing I’m trying to impress on the minds of America is how we can get back to talking like normal humans online," Gardner said.
As the primary operator of the President’s Twitter handle, Gardner has more experience with online outrage than most. “At scale, when you start to talking to millions of people per day, the normative band of people stops responding. You only get the people who love you no matter what you do or the people who hate you no matter what you do,” said Gardner, referring to the president’s Twitter replies.
Gardner also warned against the possible pitfalls of social-centric news diet. “More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook. 44 percent of U.S. adults get news on the site, and 61 percent of millennials get their news from Facebook. If that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm,” Gardner said. He was particularly worried about the issue of “filter bubbles,” a phenomenon where Facebook’s algorithm only shows its users what they want to see, which means they only ever read political news they agree with. "If you have a parent who's a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are," Gardner said.
With the election less than a month away, this is an issue that’s already weighing heavily on the minds of some Northwestern students. “The echo-chamber effect he was talking about is something that I already pay a lot of attention to,” said McCormick senior Jonathan Hoffman. “Facebook is trying to make content particularly suited to each individual user. What [Gardner] said is important because it can help mitigate the polarization that Facebook is creating in our society.”
Gardner concluded by warning that there’s no easy fix to the issue of polarization on social media, because companies have an incentive to show users news they’re going to click on regardless of whether it is the best or most accurate. Ultimately, Gardner argued that it’s the user’s responsibility to seek out diverse political opinions and challenge their own beliefs.
“Instead of having a self-reinforcing media narrative, we need to get back to challenging what we already believe,” Gardner said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said @BarackObama had 32 million Twitter followers. This is incorrect. @BarackObama has 78 million Twitter followers. NBN regrets this error, and made the change at 11 p.m. on Oct. 16.