Open a newspaper, visit a website or switch on the TV, and it’s easy to feel that society is more polarised than ever. Is that true?
Nadia Mazouz: To start with, I think we need to distinguish between two types of polarisation. Affective polarisation is where individuals or groups show a high level of antipathy towards the members of opposing groups, even to the extent of revelling in their misfortune. Social media has made this form of polarisation not only more visible, but also more common – that’s the prevailing view among sociologists as I understand it.
What’s the other type of polarisation?
Mazouz: Something we call ideological polarisation, which is when all the various attitudes, opinions and values that people have are no longer spread along a continuum but are bunched up at the extremes. There’s some debate about whether this form of polarisation has increased or not. But there are certainly some voices saying that the political middle has shrunk and that the fringes are getting stronger, more outspoken and better organised.
Christoph Stadtfeld: Affective polarisation is also linked to what we call the internet paradox: the World Wide Web was supposed to create a global village square and broaden access to information; yet, far from fulfilling that dream, the internet has become a place where disinformation flourishes and people isolate themselves in echo chambers. I would argue, though, that affective polarisation is not a new phenomenon: social media and other media may have raised its profile in the attention economy, but it also fulfils a basic psychological need that we all share.
Which need is that?
Stadtfeld: The feeling of wanting to belong to a group, to divide the world into “us” and “them”. In recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of specialised niche groups that increasingly regard mainstream politics as their common enemy. Before the internet era, people with unconventional or extreme political viewpoints had little choice but to adapt to the norms of their immediate social environment if they wanted to avoid being completely excluded. But now things are different. People on the fringes can easily find like-minded individuals on the internet to form a group and create a community.
Mazouz: Exactly. It’s a combination of both processes: the fragmentation of society into different niches and the gradual erosion of moderate positions that mediate between the two ends of the political spectrum. Our society has traditionally thrived on dissent, but this new trend is making it more segmented and simultaneously less complex.