Sunshine Hillygus earns recognition for research in political polarization and social media

Sunshine Hillygus Carnegie Fellow

Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Sunshine Hillygus is one of twenty-eight scholars in the 2024 Class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows, the Carnegie Corporation of New York announced today. The associated $200,000 stipend will support her research that seeks to understand how and why American society has become so polarized and how to support healthy democratic discourse.  

Carnegie’s choice this year to focus on political polarization attracted more than 360 applications, which they report is a record high for the program. “This year marks the first time the jury was asked to assess proposals addressing a single topic — the pervasive issue of political polarization as characterized by threats to free speech, the decline of civil discourse, disagreement over basic facts, and a lack of mutual understanding and collaboration,” said John J. DeGioia, chair of the jury and president of Georgetown University.  

Hillygus’ winning project proposal is titled, “Redesigning Social Media to Reduce Partisan Animosity.” 

“As a Carnegie Fellow, I will study how social media platforms amplify misleading characterizations of public opinion—especially misperceptions about the other party,” Hillygus wrote. “Understanding how social media contribute to partisan misperceptions is critical to identifying evidence-based reforms and regulation of current platforms, developing new platforms that promote social cohesion, and informing journalists, pollsters, and policymakers how best to navigate today’s information environment.” 

Hillygus has published widely on the topics of American political behavior, campaigns and elections, survey methods, public opinion, and information technology and politics. She is co-author of Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action, her most recent book. And she is director of the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology and co-director of the Polarization Lab

Recently, Hillygus developed a new research tool called the “Social Media Accelerator” with her co-founders of the Polarization Lab, Professor of Sociology Christopher Bail and Associate Professor of Statistical Science Alexander Volfovsky. The accelerator mimics a social media platform and allows researchers to control and vary features to create a more realistic test environment. Through the Carnegie Fellowship, Hillygus plans to conduct a series of experiments to discover people’s estimates of polarization levels when new conflicting information is introduced. 

This project will draw on various disciplines including political science, communications, sociology and psychology. “It marries two disparate literatures,” Hillygus wrote, “research on the role of social media in political polarization and research on media and polling, with the goal of broadening and deepening theoretical insights about the way the public evaluates empirical evidence encountered on social media.”