Media Blog

The Polar Vortex of Opinions- Looking into Polarisation

I am interested in discussing the reasoning and effects of polarisation on people, especially on social media. Although the lecture specifies political polarisation, and it is a part of my topic, I am interested in the broader scale of polarizing opinions on social media. Countless arguments have been wrung over gun laws, football teams, kpop, abortion and so forth, there is no limit on what big or small issue people will be polarised on. As this issue has intensified on recent years due to the anonymity and communication of the internet, it is a prime time to talk about it, especially in the wake of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, BLM and the American Election.

Polarisation is a hugely important issue in todays modern world, because with enough influence, it can distort your perception of reality. Tell yourself a few little lies, reframe certain events to your perspective and make all the ‘logic’ of the situation make you look knowledgeable, no critical thinking involved. Many people fear the unknown and want an innate sense of security over them, to which polarisation can offer a solid foundation for people to rest on. Polarisation has huge significance for society as a whole, as the group mentality involved can influence decisions such as a President being elected or even trust in society, with conspiracy theories becoming a portion of polarisation on the internet.

Many people like hearing discussions from a perspective that they find sympathetic, says Sunstein who wrote on the issue of polarisation. There are very small things that can affect polarisation, such as the order of numbers on remote for a news channel. The examples given were the American Channels MSNBC (which was left leaning) and Fox News (which is right leaning). During the study they found that watching both channels have a real effect on how people vote. Those who watched Fox for four more minutes increased the likelihood of intending to vote for Republican candidates by 0.9 percentage points. Likewise, watching MSNBC decreases that likelihood by 0.7 points. The effects then increase with time watched, with hours having an even greater effect. For individual people this effect may be small, but considering they broadcast to the whole nation, the effects are like dominoes.

The constant battle of Democrats vs Republicans

Sunstein also wrote about how people consume content that is appropriately slanted, so that they feel they can trust what they read. As humans, we don’t want all of our values and ideas questioned, so we find another group of humans to connect with us to reinforce support and not be questioned for having the ‘wrong’ opinion. There are also some groups that wall themselves out of the rest of the world. Some religious groups self-segregate to maintain comfort from outsiders and only want protection, not to allow others to join.

Talisse argues in his journal article that polarisation isn’t about where you get your news or policies, its about how people’s identity revolves around what they support. Since humans are social creatures, its only normal for us to form groups. This effect is heightened when it is part of your identity, as people take it much more personally. In turn, making it a serious part of your identity can form tighter bonds with other like minded people, making the decision easy to support said candidate, as everyone is reinforcing the same opinion.

He also says that political parties are driven to exaggerate differences, promote ideological purity and decry the other party to appeal to their own strong believers. Group polarisation is the big effect that can radicalise people into not understanding the other sides opinions, and object criticisms to their own opinions. Politics has turned into team sports, feel a surge of admiration and comradeship when your team lands a goal, and feel angry when the other team gets a score. Same principle at play.

Echo chambers are a big part of how political polarisation works, and Talisse says that even by exposing both Democrats and Republicans to Twitter messages from moderate, opposing viewpoints, they expressed more support for their own affiliation than before the study. Once a person experienced group polarisation, they took the other side personally and reinforced their own views.

This is repeated in another journal article by Bail et al. that carried out a similar experiment, by offering their respondents financial incentives to follow a twitter bot of the opposing side, such as elected officials, opinion leaders etc. They were asked their leanings again after a month. Republicans became more conservative after following a liberal twitter. There were also slight increases in liberal people being more liberal, but not as pronounced.

Social Media can be exhausting

There are millions of people around the world that visit a social media site every day, and a growing number use social media as their primary source of news. Bail et al. also says that it is very difficult to establish whether social media shapes political opinions or the other way around. Overall, the topic of polarisation is pushed to the extreme with political differences being the most prominent.

The topic is an interesting one to discuss in today’s climate, especially when I can pop on Twitter and see extreme opinions while scrolling down my timeline, when the atmosphere was totally different 5 years ago.

References

Talisse, R., 2019. Political polarization is about feelings, not facts. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/political-polarization-is-about-feelings-not-facts-120397&gt; [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Bail, C., Argyle, L., Brown, T., Bumpus, J., Chen, H., Hunzaker, M., Lee, J., Mann, M., Merhout, F. and Volfovsky, A., 2018. Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization. [online] Available at: <https://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9216&gt; [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Sunstein, C., 2018. #Republic. Princeton.

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