Polarization and polarized opinions – that only happens to other people, right?

By Daniel Lundgaard

Recent developments in politics, especially during the American election, but also within the Danish system, has inspired a lot of talk about how social media is breeding polarization and radicalized opinions. However, from my experience, polarization is often seen as something that only happens to “those people” – often those of opposing views, and as a result, we often fail to recognize that we ourselves might fall victim to the issue of polarization. 

So, with this blog I hope to encourage you to think about how this could be happening to you – and maybe also help you recognize it when it is happening for “those people”, because polarization is a growing problem in our society. 

What is it?

Polarization – it refers to the division of people or opinions into opposing groups, and while it has been discussed since the 1800s, it has gotten much worse with the emergence of social media.

This is especially seen with regards to politics, in particular in countries with two-party systems, but research suggests that there is also significant levels of political polarization in countries with plurality electoral rule (Urman 2020). Importantly, polarization also extends beyond the political system, and it is a growing issue within society, and this is not just about Apple vs Android or Pc vs Mac, this is happening within both the climate change and the anti-vaccine debate, and it is sowing conflict and stopping us from collectively working to solve global challenges. 

How does it emerge? 

Often when I hear people talking about this topic, they talk about how certain groups of people (rarely themselves) manage to seclude themselves from opposing views. This is what is called selective exposure, and it refers to how certain people only pick news and information that align with their views.

This often leads to the growth of the so-called “echo chambers”, where the same opinions are echoed back to you again and again – eventually reinforcing current views and potentially leading to more radicalized opinions. 

Of course, a lot of you are actively seeking out opposing opinions, and might therefore not see polarization as an issue for you. However, there are some problems with only seeing polarization as something that emerge when people seclude themselves from opposing views, in particular two things are in my opinion overlooked: 

  1. Exposure to opposing views has actually been found to increase polarization (Bail et al. 2018). This means that just because you might be aware of the trap of selective exposure, and actively seek out opposing opinions you might not avoid the issue of polarization. 
  2. Polarization is not just a product of the news sources you are exposed to – but just as much, a result of the people you surround yourself with. This tendency for us to surround ourselves with like-minded others is often referred to as homophily

Homophily, is, from my experience, often overlooked in conversations about polarization, and that’s a mistake, because as humans we all tend to engage with and follow people that are interested in the same things. We watch YouTube videos about things that we are interested in, and we follow people on Twitter and Facebook that are similar to us – just take a look at who you follow on Twitter and I suspect that most are either from within your profession or share your world-views. Importantly, you also need to remember, that this behavior is further amplified by the social media platforms that are built to cultivate this, to consume as much of our time as possible and to ensure that we keep using the platform. So just by using these platforms, you might fall victim to increased polarization. 

Why is it a problem? 

Throughout history the idea of a “good” debate has always emphasized the importance of diversity – and not only that you are exposed to different views, but also that you listen to people with opposing views. However, when you mainly listen to opinions and information shared by linked-minded others, or information confirming your current views, we end up with the echo chambers, where you constantly are exposed to “echoes” of the same opinions. This is highly problematic, because not only does it stop people from developing their current views, it can also lead to more radicalized opinions. 

One example from my own research is from my analysis of climate deniers that often discuss the issue of climate change within more polarized communities. However, while some of these are willing to engage in debates about the issue, others fall victim to the same stories being echoed over and over again. In one of the more extreme cases I have seen how a group of people are arguing that climate change is happening because of a giant red dragon flying around our solar system, hiding behind a second sun. And while I am skeptical about their “evidence”, which includes badly photo shopped images or optical illusions, I also see that others, because it is shared by like-minded others, accepts the “proof” and how it reinforces their belief in the narrative. 

What’s next?

Naturally, I am not saying that any of you believe in a giant red dragon flying around our solar system causing climate change by spitting fireballs, but every time I have investigated an echo chamber, I see that they are certain that they are in the right, and that the other side is being brainwashed. Of course, the fact that a smaller group of people believe this theory might not be a problem in itself, but as we have seen time and time again, radicalized ideas seeps into the general debate, such as Mark Zuckerberg being a robot or in the Pizzagate-case that was covered previously on this blog. I just hope, that with this blog I have inspired you to be aware of the growing polarization in society, to think about how you might experience polarization in your everyday life, and reminded you that it is about more than excluding yourself from opposing views, because polarization and radicalization is a growing issue that goes well beyond politics. 


About the Author

Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research investigates how communication on social media (e.g. the use of emotions, certain forms of framing or linguistic features) shapes the ways we discuss and think about organizational and societal responsibilities.


Photo by Andrew Shiau on Unsplash

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