Social media and political polarization in Latin America: Analyzing Online Discussions during the 2018 Presidential Campaign in Colombia


In October 2019, El Tiempo. the national newspaper with the highest circulation in Colombia, published an interview with a psychology professor titled “Social networks are destroying democracy” (Neira, 2019). The interview illustrates the tone which dominates the debate on the role of social media in the current crisis of democracy, a debate which is taking place in Colombia as well as in most regions of the world. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election in the US and of the Brexit referendum, social media was accused of undermining democracy and favoring the rise of populism. This line of argument was further used in Latin America in different contexts, such as the rejection of the peace agreement by plebiscite in Colombia in 2016, or the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018.

Interestingly, social networks were hailed as “tyranny’s new nightmare” (Rutten, 2009) only a decade ago. They were described as the main tool used by the opposition during the Arab Spring, which was even dubbed the “Twitter revolution” by some analysts (for a critique, see Mejias, 2011).

Against this background, it is necessary to avoid technological determinism in the analysis of the ambivalent relationship between social media and democracy. While social media indubitably participates in the extension and deepening of the worldwide crisis of liberal democracy, they cannot be singled out as the main explanation. Without ignoring the importance of algorithms, it is important to highlight the role of user agency in shaping online communications (Seargeant & Tagg. 2019).

This chapter explores the case of Colombian youth as social media users in the context of the 2018 Presidential elections. It investigates the relationship between social media and polarization through a user-centered analysis of the creation and reproduction of filter bubbles and echo chambers. This chapter describes how Colombian students participated in WhatsApp groups and chose the information they wanted to consume on social media in the context of the presidential election. It argues that Colombian students are aware of the biases that might affect information on social media, but voluntarily exercise their ability to select information and to choose the political discourses that best fit their own political views.

Based on the observation of WhatsApp groups during the campaign and on an exploratory survey of university students, the chapter identifies elements of online political polarization that seem to stem more from the political context in the country than from the effects of algorithmic curation. This allows us to draw some conclusions on the ethical implications of online communication in highly polarized political contexts.

The remainder of the chapter is organized as follows. First, we discuss the notion of filter bubbles and highlight the role of users, especially among the youth. Second, we outline the political context of the 2018 presidential election in Colombia and the role of social media in the campaign. Third, we describe the results of the observation of three WhatsApp groups during the campaign. Fourth, we present the results of the preliminary survey on information selection. Finally, we discuss the findings and explore the ethical concerns raised by online polarization.

Filter bubbles and online polarization: The agency of users

While notions such as filter bubbles and echo chambers are useful in order to analyze the role of algorithms in curating online information, current political debates tend to adopt a deterministic stance on technology and underestimate the agency of users, especially among educated youth.

Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online polarization

The digital transformation affects the way in which we access information. Traditional models of newspapers, radio, and TV news are competing with—and increasingly replaced by—online sources of information. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, about two-thirds of US adults get their news at least occasionally on social media (Pew Research Center, 2018). While access remains an issue in Latin America, mobile social media penetration rates in the region are among the highest in the world. It amounts to 61% in South America and 59% in Central America, figures that are similar to those of Northern Europe and North America (We are social. 2019). Moreover, the time spent per day on social media in the region is well above the world’s mean (over 3 hours per day in countries such as Brazil, Colombia. Argentina, and Mexico compared to a worldwide mean of 2:16) (We are social, 2019).

Against this background, analysts have started to investigate the consequences of the digital transformation over the last decade, not only on our news consumption patterns, but also on the general public debate that shape democratic politics. Two elements of the transformation are of utmost

Social media and political polarization 131 importance. First, user-generated content circulates along with information produced by professional journalists and traditional news outlets. Second, social media companies use algorithms to curate the flows of information. Algorithms select information, organize it. and present it in a user-friendly fashion aimed at increasing the attractiveness of the platform.

Eli Pariser (2011) describes how algorithmic curation creates invisible and custom filters that trap users in a virtual bubble. For example. Google’s PageRank algorithm draws from 57 indicators such as the place of connection. or the topics searched, to discover “who you are and what kind of pages you like.” As a result, a Google query shows different results depending on the personal experience of the user. The same phenomenon happens on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. Filter bubbles are likely to affect particularly the most active populations on social media such as the youth (Youth Observatory, 2017).

While the academic debate on filter bubbles remains focused on the Global North, and especially on the United States following the 2016 presidential election, the phenomenon has also been studied in Latin America (Rodriguez Cano, 2018; Rossi, 2018). Algorithmic curation in the region also leads to information that is more concentrated and to the formation of filter bubbles.

On a similar note, researchers have evidenced a tendency of social media to amplify and reinforce users’ pre-existing beliefs through the creation of echo chambers. The circulation of information within relatively closed networks (such as a followers’ network on Twitter) might lead to the repetition of some news and to the attenuation of others, based on the ideological orientation of the network of users. Studies have shown the emergence of high levels of homophily within networks of followers on Twitter (Colleoni et al., 2014) and the consequent polarization of online debates (Barbera et al., 2015).

The agency of users and the critique of technological determinism

Based on the findings of the research on filter bubbles and echo chambers, many commenters have adopted a perspective inspired by technological determinism. In this view, the current crisis of liberal democracy, as evidenced by the global retreat of democracy over the last few years (The Economist, 2019), is caused by the polarization of political positions and the emergence of populist candidates on social media (for a discussion, see Groshek and Koc-Michalska, 2017). Moreover, early studies on filter bubbles and echo chambers focused on the United States and its two-party political system, which introduces a bias toward the identification of polarization (Borgesius et al., 2016). They also tended to minimize the high diversity of information sources (Dubois & Blank. 2018).

This chapter adopts a more nuanced perspective by focusing on the agency of users. Recent research on filter bubbles and echo chambers onsocial media have tended to minimize the role of algorithm and to stress the importance of the political context and the psycho-political biases of users (Spohr, 2017). Faced with pluralist perspectives, people choose information that reinforces their existing preferences. Therefore, filter bubbles and echo chambers are not only the product of algorithms created by internet and social media companies. A series of factors related to the political and institutional context, as well as those particular to each person, come together and give way to the presence of these phenomena.

In order to study the consumption of news from social media by Colombian youth, we argue that it is necessary to describe the already highly polarized political context, to acknowledge the competence of young and educated users, and to stress their ability to select from multiple information sources. Based on the assumption that social media both increases exposure to ideologically distant news material, and at the same time reinforce polarization (Flaxman et al., 2016). we adopt a user-centric perspective in order to understand the creation and reproduction of filter bubbles and echo chambers beyond algorithmic curation.

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