in Political Polarization

Polarizing Media

Although he significantly benefited from uninterrupted media attention throughout his presidency, Donald Trump never had to rely on the infrastructure of traditional media outlets throughout his political ascent and years in office. Instead, he could directly tweet his rambling thoughts to millions of followers. There was no editor, not even a proofreader that served as a barrier between Trump and his supporters.

This example highlights the transformation of the contemporary media environment. Whilst we used to only have access to a small set of informational sources through which we would form our opinions, the internet and its accompanying dynamics have paved the way to a scattered terrain of news outlets, including social media, blogs and a variety of other channels. These have reshaped the manner by which we engage with current affairs and the public discourse.

Accelerated by the advent of smartphones, we are daily confronted with news and recent developments at unprecedented rates, resulting in information services having to compete for our attention. In the following article, I discuss the characteristics of this new media environment and address 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 broadcasting 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 population 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 author argues, the proliferation of media channels allows readers to simply switch sources in case of disagreement with the underlying message. According to Nichols, this becomes an issue when considering that human reasoning is undermined by a set of systematic errors. In the context of the new media landscape, he points to confirmation bias, i.e. our tendency to selectively accept evidence that supports our preexisting beliefs. For example, someone who is a firm opponent of immigration tends to discount findings on the beneficial effects to economy and society and instead focuses on evidence highlighting its downsides.

Studies have demonstrated the prevalence of this effect for all parts of the political spectrum. Instead of voluntarily approaching information with a willingness to change our minds, we much prefer to stick to our established views of the world. The combination of this cognitive error and the wide availability of different media sources significantly impedes public discourse, as a quick Google search can easily yield evidence to bolster any given viewpoint. This explains the perseverance of groups that have stubbornly resisted the scientific consensus on topics such as man-made climate change or the importance of vaccinations.

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 on the evening news, we can now follow many important developments live as they unfold. As a result, we demand 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 have upended 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, about 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 message calls upon the empathy of other users and forces them 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 within 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 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 based on the data it collects, Facebook can more accurately predict our character traits than 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 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 analytics that give profound insight into how emotions can be triggered and voters nudged into a certain direction. 

Making things even worse, social media doesn’t just allow for targeting voter segments with immense precision but is designed in a way that prevents interaction between people with different viewpoints. The legal scholar Cass Sunstein makes the case that both sides of the political spectrum 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 circulates. These homogeneous circles came to be defined as ‘echo chambers’, in which deliberation only takes place among the like-minded. Conveniently, users are exclusively presented with news and information that are in line with pre-existing beliefs, satisfying our confirmation biases.

Unfortunately, according to Sunstein, any system that presents political content in a customized manner leads to fragmentation and information reduction. It is the unplanned encounters between citizens from different walks of life and of different opinions that serve as 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)