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Polarizing Media

The world of political journalism has changed. We used to only have access to a small set of sources that would disperse information through which we then formed our opinions. However, in recent years, the emergence of the internet has given way to a scattered terrain of news outlets, including social media, blogs, and a variety of other channels. Throughout his political ascent and years in office, Donald Trump never had to rely on the infrastructure of traditional media outlets (though he significantly benefited from uninterrupted media attention throughout his presidency). Instead, he could simply tweet his messages directly to millions of followers. This also highlights the increasing speed of knowledge and news dissemination we are experiencing, resulting in a situation where various information services are forced to compete for our attention. This article discusses the characteristics of the new media environment and addresses how our novel habits of news consumption contribute to societal polarization. 

Changing Media Landscapes

Throughout the past decades, the rise of the internet has lowered the entry barriers to journalism and enabled the creation of a myriad of journalistic enterprises. More news outlets meant more competition among the different players, from which readers could easily pick and choose. In this emerging hyper-competitive media environment, newsrooms had to chart new paths to reach their audiences. Instead of the few national networks that catered to large and heterogeneous segments, media outlets started adapting their content to narrow groups of readers, characterized by particular political and demographic attributes. 

According to political scientist Tom Nichols, this turn has been deeply problematic, as the proliferation of media channels allows readers to simply switch when they disagree with the underlying message. In a previous article, we have established that human reasoning is undermined by various systematic errors. With respect to the new media landscape, Nichols points to confirmation bias, a form of selective thinking in which individuals are more likely to accept evidence which supports their preexisting beliefs. For example, someone who is a firm opponent of immigration tends to discount findings on its beneficial effects and pays more attention to evidence on its downsides. The combination of this cognitive error and the wide availability of different media sources results in the situation where one can find support for any given viewpoint, including the effectiveness of vaccinations or skepticism towards man-made climate change. 

The Battle over our Attention

The transformation of news media into a highly-digitalized consumer product has been further accelerated by the advent of smartphones, which enable immediate access to a constant flow of information. Contrary to our previous routines of catching up with current events by watching the evening news on national networks, we can now follow many important developments live as they unfold. At the same time, we demand from news outlets to update us in an instantaneous and constant manner. Gone are the days when journalists have the time or financial luxury to deeply research and develop expertise on the topics they report about. 

But there has been another trend that needs to be addressed when discussing media disruption: new players have entered the scene in the late 2000s which would upend our news consumption habits in their entirety. Having first seen the light of day in a Harvard dorm room in 2004, the social media platform Facebook has, by 2020, gathered nearly 3 billion active users, roughly a third of the world population. In 2016, it was linked to having had a significant impact on both, the UK Brexit referendum and the US presidential elections. How come the emergence of these networks has had such a drastic effect on society and politics? 

The German blogger and political commentator Sascha Lobo describes social media as a catalyst where emotions are stirred, intensified and transformed into a collective experience. The ease of spreading information in a simple and often visual manner calls upon the empathy of others and forces each user to form an opinion. This explains why social media has had such a polarizing effect: content such as anger over political opponents or fears of immigration is packaged in a highly emotional frame that spreads quickly through the networks. By directly appealing to our basic emotions, complex moral topics are reduced to a plain, one-dimensional distinction: Like or Dislike? Or worse: “Are you with me or against me on this issue?!” In this system, outrage has become more appealing than calmness and rationality. 

This problem intensifies when taking into account the business model of the social media giants: micro-targeted advertising. In the current “attention economy”, our concentration is considered a scarce commodity for which different corporations, particularly the large technology companies compete. Even though their services are free to use, the more time we spend on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, the more ad revenue they make. This incentivizes the tech companies to optimize their algorithms and present us with ever more addictive content that induces us to spend more time on their sites. In essence, instead of inhibiting the culture of rage that flourishes on their sites, the companies actually benefit from the polarizing nature of their platforms. 

Social Media and Democracy

A 2015 study by researchers from Cambridge and Stanford University found that the data activity gathered by Facebook knows more about our character traits than our friends, family and even our partners. The more pages we like, the better the predictions become. Similar results were found in studies of Twitter, where the content of our Tweets and the accounts we follow can give insight into emotional states, political inclinations and socioeconomic attributes. In the age of broadcast media, mass democracy meant grand public messages that would appeal to a vast number of voters. In contrast, advertising to narrow demographic and political niches through social media has become a feasible option for political campaigners, who can base their strategy on data that gives profound insight into how our emotions can be triggered and how voters can be nudged into a certain direction. 

But things are even worse. Social media doesn’t just allow for targeting voter segments with immense precision but it is designed in a way that prevents interaction between people with different viewpoints. The legal scholar Cass Sunstein makes the case that people on both sides of the political divide are highly selective in what they read and, with a little help of the algorithms underlying the social media platforms, tend to form digital bubbles in which the same information repeatedly spreads around. These homogeneous circles came to be defined as ‘echo-chambers’, in which deliberation only takes place among the like-minded and people are exclusively presented with news and information that are in line with their pre-existing beliefs.      

According to Sunstein, any system that presents political content in a customized manner leads to fragmentation, information reduction and a misrepresentation of free choice. Moreover, unplanned encounters among citizens from different walks of life and of different opinions serve as one of the main building blocks to democracy. In the city of Athens in Ancient Greece, democracy’s birthplace, people gathered in a central meeting place, the Agora, and debated their views. Accordingly, interactions in a digital Agora should be structured similarly: a democratic society needs citizens to engage with each other, especially if they hold diverging views. However, as we have discussed, the current incentives for social media platforms are not aligned with this necessity and public policy has yet to find a way to address this issue. 

In the following article of this series, we examine where the path we are on might lead to and discuss to what extent our democratic institutions are at risk. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

  • Cass Sunstein – #Republic
  • Yascha Mounk – The People vs. Democracy
  • Sascha Lobo – Realitätsschock: Zehn Lehren aus der Gegenwart (German)