Social media and polarisation

Research on polarisation is imprecise at best (Hetherington, Long, and Rudolph 2016). Polarisation refers to social and political divisions, differences or “poles”. The relationship between social media and polarisation is complex; social media is not a direct cause of polarisation (Laurenson 2018). Social media changes the information ecosystem, and this distorts relationships between people and public institutions. The case studies in this book illustrate a complex array of ways that social media contributes to social cohesion, on one hand, but can also be used by political elites, violent extremist groups and civil society in ways that contribute to different shades of polarisation, including direct and structural violence. Social media is a “strategic space” for diverse stakeholders competing with each other for “narrative dominance”.

There are a variety of hypotheses about the link between social media and polarisation. Chapter 1 described how social media platforms use algorithms to link people with similar interests. On social media, people choose what they want to see and hear from others on the platform. Platform algorithms operate to maximise homophily, the human desire to connect and bond with people who are similar to ourselves. Hashtags help people find conversations or other people or groups (Sunstein 2017). One theory is that social media creates “filter bubbles” as a result of both self-selection and algorithms that ensure people with similar experiences and opinions sec the same types of information (Pariser 2011). People in an information bubble may experience a type of “echo chamber” where most of their social contacts post information that is similar to what they believe. This environment can create an illusion that “everyone believes as I do”, or that a person is validated in their beliefs because they perceive that they arc a “majority” even if their echo chamber is relatively small, and most of the population believes differently. Human cognition already has a bias towards confirming what we already think and overlooking information that disproves or complicates our understanding of the world. Misinformation and disinformation passed on social media through friends seem to be more likely to be read and viewed as credible.

Research is inconclusive as to whether partisan news activates partisan identities; it could be that people with strong partisan views seek out partisan media. Social media increases the accessibility of partisan media outlets. But there is some evidence that people with less access to social media are more partisan than those who use it more often. One study found that there was more polarisation among those groups that used social media the least (Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro 2017). But others argue that social media enables more hostile public discourse. In Tl>c Myth of Digital Democracy, Hindman notes that while cyberspace makes it easy to “speak”, cyberspace makes it difficult to be “heard” (Hindman 2008, 142).

People organise online to overcome real-life hurdles, including social disapproval for their group. Online groups grow in strength as like-minded people cooperate to overcome external threats. Tufckci describes this as a shift away from public deliberation towards the use of private and secret rooms and groups on social media (Tufckci 2018). The architecture and functionality of social media platforms may create safe havens for hate speech and extremist rhetoric, which go unchallenged because they happen out of the public’s eye.

There are several hypotheses related to whether people express less respect and more hatred for others online than in person. People may simply encounter a greater variety of political opinions online than they do in person, and so it may be difficult to compare online and in-person communication styles. Some social media platforms allow anonymous posts or posts with a pseudonym. This option might make it less socially costly to express hate and anger, and there may be fewer mechanisms of accountability and less impact on the reputation of those who do post such messages (Trump et al. 2018).

This book includes examples of how social media can support social cohesion. Social cohesion refers to the quality of relationships between people; the wellbeing of all members of society', including their sense of belonging, inclusion and participation; and the social contract between governments and citizens (Fonseca, Lukosch, and Brazier 2018). Social cohesion can coexist with issue polarisation, which refers to disagreement over specific issues, but an ability to work together to address those issues. With issue polarisation, different political ideas and parties exist, but there are cross-cutting relationships to foster social cohesion between other groups. This is sometimes referred to as “positive peace” or “peace with justice”.

But most authors emphasise the roles of social media in polarisation and repressive or violent forms of conflict. This spectrum switches as people move from “issue polarisation” to “affect polarisation”, where people express negative emotions about other groups and tend to see other groups as an existential threat. Polarisation increases as hate speech toward other groups turns to “dangerous speech” that condones, justifies or encourages direct violence towards an individual or identity group. With affect polarisation, the public may contest elections, participate in nonviolent social movements or even join a violent extremist group. The state may defend structural injustices that harm some groups or even use state security' forces to repress nonviolent protests. Foreign governments may interfere to amplify polarisation, and the state may succumb to civil war.

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