Polarization in society (division into sharply contrasting groups), can be based on race (e.g., White vs Black), nationality (Australians vs Immigrants), religion (Catholics vs Protestants in Northern Ireland), political ideology (conservatives vs progressives), or even a choice in temporary political contestation (Trump’s supporters vs Hillary’s supporters).
How does polarization develop?
The trajectory of polarization and conflict does not just happen all of a sudden, but rather goes through stages. Professor Fathali Moghaddam has outlined the three main stages of polarization:
Political elections are ripe grounds for polarization as the competition elections allows for each group to intentionally highlight differences that create the “us” vs “them” mentality. In this process biases such as a tendency to interpret evidence as being more robust if it is in line with prior beliefs are used to gather people’s support.
Information access and fake news
One process which has the potential to accelerate polarization is the distribution of fake news. During the 2016 US election campaign, hundreds of websites were published in order to strengthen support for one candidate and bring the opposing candidate down. Social media users also propagated a huge number of messages that distorted the facts to voters. However, this is not just a problem in the United States. In Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, a fake voting machine video was retweeted by thousands of social media users after being shared by a right-wing politician. This video was later found to be a hoax.
In Indonesia, a politician tweeted about seven containers in one of the ports which were allegedly storing ballot paper pre-marked with votes for one of the candidates. Through his twitter, this politician later asked the police to investigate the information. The tweet raised massive controversy and incited public debates. One group took the information to be fact, while the opposing party reported the politician to the police, accusing him of using technology to spread misinformation.
While it is easy to delete a tweet that has been shown to be false, the downstream effect of misinformation is more difficult to fix. It is also challenging to prevent the initial polarization that occurs over a specific issue from developing into more widespread and extreme polarization.
As explained by Professor Moghaddam, extreme polarization develops through extreme in-group cohesion. Ingroup cohesion exacerbates polarization as it creates “social bubbles” in which we only hear information that is in line with our group’s beliefs. Within this process, a closed mindset takes place within a group as a consequence of being bombarded with information with a partisanship bias, or even fake news. As the fake news provides increasing “evidence” of outgroup threat and ingroup superiority, each side becomes more wedded to its own distorted perspectives.
Preventing the effect of fake news
Stopping fake news from being spread is difficult, and some use it for their own political gain. But, what can people do to protect themselves from the unexpected effects of fake news?
We know from studies that education is can be an antidote to fake news. However, we also know that highly educated people can be fooled. For example, some educated people distributed fake news related to politics and religion in the Indonesian elections. Education is extraordinarily important as a buffer against hoaxes and fake news, but the educational process must encourage healthy skepticism for it to be effective. Without active, educated dissent from misinformation campaigns (even when these favour the ingroup), we can expect the cycle of polarization and mutual radicalization to continue in future.
- Susilo Wibisono
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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