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Photograph by Stephen Salpukas/William & Mary

Posting a photo of your hybrid car on your Facebook page? Must be a liberal. A selfie at a country music concert? Probably a conservative.

These kinds of snap judgments, justified or not, are the subject of a new book by Jaime Settle, ’07, Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America.

“Using Facebook makes it very easy to send signals about your political views, even if you don’t think you’re talking about politics,” said Settle, an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary. “Our society is so divided that cultural references like that align with political identities.”

Settle arrived at her area of expertise, political behavior on social media, after collaborating on a project with Facebook’s data science team while working on her doctorate at the University of California, San Diego. In Frenemies, she presents evidence that people often politically stereotype others — especially those they don’t know very well, or even at all — based on the non-political content they share.

“On the Facebook feed, you’re able to be a fly on the wall and you’re able to observe the interactions that other people have in a way that’s just not possible in face-to-face communication,” Settle said. “And if you disagree with them, you’re likely to think they’re using biased sources.”

Settle’s research is particularly timely in today’s political climate, which has made her an in-demand speaker. She’s presented at universities across the country, given public talks, and even taken her work international.

“I have more senior colleagues in the fields of political communication and psychology who have started using it in their classrooms, who are talking about it, and sort of changing the way we conceptualize social media, and that was a big goal for me,” Settle said. “It’s also really neat to know that it’s not just my fellow academics who are interested, but also public audiences.”

Even more significant to Settle, the recipient of the 2018 Rising Star Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), is how her work connects with her students, whose age equips them to comprehend the subject matter. In addition to serving as the co-director of William & Mary’s Social Science Research Methods Center and the founding director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab, she oversees a research group of 15 undergraduates. Her focus is helping them develop as scholars and involving them in her research to the point that a former student is the co-author of her follow-up book.

An Oldham Scholar at Richmond, Settle has aspired to positively impact others since her earliest days as a Spider. In order to attend an out-of-state college, the Arizona native relied on the merit scholarship, so the generosity of the donors who funded her education — and the desire to emulate their spirit — stuck with her.

“I think more than anything, it imbued me with the sense that I wanted to be a leader, and I wanted to help other people realize their full potential,” she said. “And I was so grateful that these strangers had done that for me and taken the risk for me that I really wanted to find ways to pay it forward.”