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Exploring political polarisation on the internet

Researchers Nils Gustafsson and Anamaria Dutceac Segesten on the topical subject of online political polarization.
Interview with Anamaria Dutceac Segesten and Nils Gustafsson from the Theme Political Polarisation on the Internet

The storming of the Capitol, waning trust in politicians and authorities, growing fact resistance, and filter bubbles – a great deal is today attributed to growing political polarisation. But is there any evidence that polarisation is increasing; what are the differences between the United States and Sweden, and what role does the media play in driving polarisation? These questions are explored by the Theme Political Polarisation on the Internet.

Polarisation is not necessarily bad, says Anamaria Dutceac Segesten and Nils Gustafsson from the Theme Political Polarisation on the Internet. They also point to crucial differences between the United States and Europe. 

Read the full interview translated in English below or the original in Swedish at lu.se: Ökad politisk polarisering inte nödvändigtvis av ondo

VIDEO: Interview with Nils Gustafsson and Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

Has the political polarisation of society increased?

Nils Gustafsson: 
In the United States, there is clear evidence that political polarisation is increasing. For example, we see that the political parties are moving away from each other in how they vote on different issues, and that their position on a right or left scale is more extreme in both directions. We have also seen that American Democrat or Republican voters have grown more unlike each other, and that they dislike each other to a greater extent. The picture is different in Sweden, where evidence of this type of polarisation is less clear. Some studies suggest that there is a growing rhetorical distance between the right and the left, all the while there is evidence that voters have less ill feeling toward parties on the extreme left or right. From this angle, we could say that conversely, political polarisation in Sweden is decreasing.

What consequences might an increase in political polarisation have?

Nils Gustafsson:
In a vital, active democracy, it’s important that different views can be pitted against each other, even if they are far apart. Were we to see trends like those in the United States, where people at different ends of the opinion spectrum prefer not to spend time together or dislike each other, it would of course be negative.

Should increased polarisation be understood as something solely negative?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten:
Some people say polarisation in general is bad as there is no middle way, and that people are unable to agree if their views are far apart, but there are others who feel polarisation is good, because the distinctions between different ideological positions are made clearer, and this can for example lead to better choices being made.

What might a loss of trust in politicians and authorities entail?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten:
There's a big difference between Sweden and the United States in terms of trust in public institutions, as is clearly evident from OECD studies. In Sweden, most important institutions such as schools, the police, the courts and so forth, are highly trusted. On the other hand, in the United States, approval ratings for these institutions and politicians are very low.  Maybe it’s the very lack of trust that forms the basis for polarisation. If we lack trust in institutions, we also lack trust in the information such institutions communicate, and then we call everything into question, including scientifically based facts, and this can lead to an increase in conspiracy theories, alternative explanations, and so forth.

Have social media contributed to increased political polarisation?

Nils Gustafsson:
There is a strong perception that social media contribute to increasing polarisation as people's preferences regarding, for example, news consumption are largely determined by algorithms, where social media feeds make sure they show the things the algorithms think we will like.

From this comes the notion of filter bubbles and echo chambers, where we only see and hear things that conform to our own world view. However, this tendency in our news consumption has always existed. We can compare with Sweden 50-60 years ago for example, when there were often multiple newspapers of different political persuasions in every town. The Social Democratic newspaper would perhaps describe reality differently to the conservative or liberal newspapers. Thus we could say that there has often been a tendency to adapt our news consumption to our own political opinions.

What is the role of conventional media? 

Nils Gustafsson: 
To compare the roles conventional and social media play we must first problematise the difference between the two. Today we see a hybridisation of the conventional and social media, where conventional media have begun to ape social media in order to survive in today’s information reality. For example, we see an increase in opinion journalism and news channels that actively position themselves in an ideological spectrum. Today’s media reality is characterised by the need to be shared, which means news must be more angled and polarised. The content we see in social media, whether it comes from conventional media websites or is user-generated, is produced to stand out. If we read an entire newspaper, or watch all of a news broadcast, they appear more balanced and nuanced than if we just read what we see in our feeds. This may make us perceive reality as more polarised. Thus there is not such a big difference between the way conventional and social media operate. 

What are the differences between the US and Europe?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten:
There are rather large differences between the US and Europe in terms of polarisation and polarisation studies. The biggest difference is in the political system. The United States has a two-party system, while all European countries have multi-party systems, with the exception of the United Kingdom.

It’s much easier to study polarisation in the United States, because there is a division into two camps right from the outset, i.e. Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, and so forth. It’s difficult to carry these differences over to Swedish or European politics when there are more overlapping issues and agendas in a multi-party system than in a two-party system. Because of our structural political differences, I doubt very much that polarisation in Europe will come to look the way it does in the United States.

What are you investigating in your Theme at the Pufendorf IAS?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten:
Our focus is the issue of political polarisation on the internet. Recent events have highlighted the importance of asking questions and investigating what is going on. Learning from everything going on in the United States, and all of the studies that focus on the United States, we want to see if the findings can be applied in a European or Swedish context. We're examining polarisation at multiple levels, in terms of both individual and emotional polarisation, we're and also looking at the political elite and whether it has been polarised. We also look at the role of the media, both conventional and hybrid. We investigate facts and knowledge and how they are used in the ‘war’ between those who believe in facts and those who do not. We feel there may be many different aspects that play a role, as well as many different solutions. The latter might well be technological solutions, algorithmic solutions or solutions that derive from a legislative perspective.
 

About the Theme of Political Polarisation on the Internet

The interdisciplinary Theme Political polarisation On the Internet seeks to increase understanding and integrate the latest research on political polarisation on the internet, with a particular focus on its causes and effects. The researchers aim to identify, summarise and evaluate promising directions for future research on political polarisation, using methods based on multidisciplinary conversations and collaborations at the intersection of law, politics, philosophy, communication, computer science and related subjects.

Researchers and Theme members Anamaria Dutceac Segesten and Nils Gustafsson give a brief introduction to their Theme Political Polarisation On the Internet.
 

Read more about the Theme on their web page 

About the researchers

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten. Foto.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is a political scientist with a particular interest in democratic issues, political communication and collective identity. Her research focuses on the influence of social media on polarisation processes in the EU and the United States. Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is the coordinator of the Theme Political Polarisation on the Internet at the Pufendorf IAS.

Read more about Anamaria Dutceac Segesten in the Lund University research portal

Nils Gustafsson. Foton.

Nils Gustafsson's research focuses on political communication, social media and political participation. Nils Gustafsson is a member of the Theme of Political Polarisation on the Internet at the Pufendorf IAS.

Read more about Nils Gustafsson in the Lund university research portal