New data show that the polarization of political discourse on the Internet has remained largely unchanged since the end of 2020. That is probably not surprising if you looked at the Internet at all in the past year. But the data also reveal an underlying pattern in which individual issues – such as abortion and immigration – alternated and promoted division. While people online were constantly crazy about political issues, the topics that sparked the conversations changed dramatically over the course of the year.
The data, which comes from a joint project by Zignal Labs, a social media intelligence platform, the University of Southern California Annenberg School, and Golin, a public relations firm, help explain why the political discourse will be in 2021 like an endless carousel of indignation.
Zignal, USC Annenberg and Golin have teamed up to create the Polarization Index, which measures interaction with polarized content on Twitter and calculates a polarization score. Since the index began tracking conversations last year, major political events like the 6th uprising have changed. Meanwhile, the PI score has barely moved.
While Twitter is nowhere near a perfect proxy for a broader divide, online platforms play a hugely important role in shaping political discourse. Social media platforms such as Meta (formerly Facebook) were again scrutinized this year, which has led to new doubts about the ethics of these platforms and their possibilities for combating misinformation, extremism and hate speech on the internet.
There has been a longstanding scientific debate about how to measure polarization and a clear standard has not yet emerged. This index averages the polarization values for 10 political topics – immigration, policing, racial justice, abortion, electoral integrity, gun legislation, climate change, minimum wage, Covid-19 vaccines and health care reform – on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 is absolute polarization). The polarization score is calculated by combining the volume of news links shared on Twitter with the bias and reliability ratings of the media sources posting the shared content, assuming that there is an “unreliable source at both ends of the” political bias -Spectrum polarizes more strongly than a portion from highly reliable, more centered sources. “
The grouping of media sources according to bias and reliability comes from the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart, an independent rating company for news content that determines political inclinations and evaluates reliability based on original factual reporting.
Why it felt so bad to be online this year
The polarization index started at the end of 2020 with a score of 85.5, which the researchers described as a “critical” level. The score fell by only 3 points at the beginning of 2021 and has remained constant since then.
Currently, immigration is the most polarized issue measured by the index, followed by police policy, racial justice and gun laws. At the topic level, polarization changes were much more common and the degree of polarization seemed to shift from topic to topic, keeping the overall score high.
Voice integrity, for example, was the second most important issue in the fourth quarter of 2020, then dropped to the sixth out of ten, and rose back to fifth in the second half of 2021.
Research published in addition to the polarization index also found that news articles on the most polarized topics were more likely to come from unreliable, right-wing sources. The report said that “working with right-wing sources tended to steer the conversation in an increasingly polarized direction.”
This was the case, for example, with immigration, the most polarized topic: from late 2020 to the third quarter of 2021, right-wing sources with medium and low reliability dominated the conversation, and the polarization score rose from 84.8 to 100.3 im During the year. The pattern is consistent with the other highly polarized issues.
In line with Zignal’s research, it is well documented that more extreme content is also more likely to be misleading.
Anya Schiffrin, director of technology, media, and communications programs at Columbia University, says, “A lot of disinformation is top-down. It comes from heads of state, it comes from politicians. ”Schiffrin also attributes the problem to a lack of“ gatekeepers ”to monitor the flow of content. Instead, algorithmic recommendation systems on social media platforms tend to reinforce extreme material, which, according to Schiffrin, leads to a “more extreme internet”.
The extreme digital environment resulted in dramatic depictions of violence in the real world this year. Examples of this relationship include Facebook’s role in the post-coup violence in Myanmar and the January 6 uprising in the United States, which resulted from a spate of disinformation about election results.
At the request of MIT Technology Review, Zignal conducted an analysis specifically looking at how people interacted with various media sources on the subject of electoral trust and voter integrity over time. The data shows that interaction with less reliable sources on both the left and right was highest around the elections and around the events of January 6th.
At the end of 2020, the debate with less reliable right-wing sources in particular dominated the online discussion about the integrity of the voters. This was also the time when the polarization score of voter integrity was highest, reaching 95. According to the report, the high level of disagreement caused by the disagreement over voter integrity led to “the events of January 6 at the Capitol.”
Notably, highly reliable right-wing sources account for only 0.017% of total voter integrity engagement, while highly reliable left-wing sources account for about 36%.
According to a study by Pew Research from late November 2020, 79% of Trump voters said the 2020 presidential election didn’t go well, compared to 6% of Biden voters.
Another election year is upon us and talks about the health of American democracy are coming back to the fore, putting renewed pressure on social media.
However, some reasons for optimism can be found across the Atlantic. The European Union is considering two major bills in the first half of 2022, the so-called Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, which is led by the French government. The bills aim to tackle hate speech and the underlying advertising model, which is widely recognized as one of the most fundamental challenges in curbing the spread of misinformation.