The new data shows that the polarization of online political discourse has remained largely unchanged since the end of 2020. Perhaps this is not surprising if you look at the internet at all in the past year. But the data also shows a basic pattern in which individual topics – such as abortion and immigration – take turns to cause the dichotomy. While people have always been online crazy about political issues, the issues that have fueled the conversations have changed dramatically throughout the year.
The data, which comes from a joint project between social media intelligence platform Zignal Labs, and the University of Southern California, helps explain why political rhetoric in 2021 looks like a never-ending vortex of anger.
Zignal and USC teamed up to create the Polarization Index, which measures interaction with polarized content on Twitter and calculates the degree of polarization. Since the index began tracking conversations last year, major political events such as the January 6 rebellion, the transition from the Trump administration to Biden, and the majority of the covid-19 vaccine releases have occurred. The whole time, the PI score was hardly moving.
While Twitter is far from the ideal agent of discord on a larger scale, online platforms play a very important role in shaping political discourse. Social media platforms like Meta (formerly Facebook) have again come under the microscope this year, leading to new doubts about the ethics of these platforms and how they can tackle misinformation, extremism and hate speech online.
There is a long-running academic debate about how to measure polarization, and a clear standard has not yet emerged. This index measures average polarization scores for ten political topics — immigration, policing, racial equality, abortion, voting integrity, gun legislation, climate change, minimum wages, COVID-19 vaccines, and health care reform — on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 absolute polarization). The degree of polarization is calculated by combining the volume of news link shares on Twitter with the bias and reliability ratings of the media sources publishing the shared content, assuming that “a source of low reliability on either end of the political bias spectrum is more polarizing than a share of highly reliable and more focused sources.”
The aggregation of media sources according to bias and reliability comes from Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart, an independent news content rating company that identifies political leanings and assesses reliability based on original fact reports.
Why did you feel bad online this year
The polarization index started at 85.5 at the end of 2020, which the researchers called the “critical” level. The score dropped just 3 points at the start of 2021 and has remained steady ever since.
Currently, immigration is the most polarizing topic measured by the index, followed by police policy, racial equality, and gun legislation. At the subject level, changes in polarization were more common, and degrees of polarization appeared to shift from one subject to another, keeping the overall score high.
Voting integrity, for example, was the second most controversial issue in the fourth quarter of 2020, then slipped to sixth out of 10, and rose to fifth in the second half of 2021.
Research published along with the Polarization Index found that news articles shared on the most polarizing topics were more likely to come from unreliable, right-leaning sources. “Dealing with right-leaning sources was likely to push the talks in an increasingly polarized direction,” the report says.
For example, this was the case for migration, the most polarizing topic: as of the end of 2020 though in the third quarter of 2021, the conversation was dominated by right-leaning sources with medium and low reliability, and the degree of polarization increased from 84.8 to 100.3 during the year . The style is consistent with other highly polarized themes.
In line with Zignal’s search results, it’s well documented that more extreme content also tends to be more misleading.
“A lot of misinformation comes from top to bottom. It’s coming from heads of state, it’s coming from politicians,” says Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media and Communication Program at Columbia University. Shiffrin also pinpoints the problem to the lack of “gatekeepers” to monitor the flow of content. Instead, algorithmic recommendation systems on social media platforms tend to amplify extremist material, which Shiffrin says is leading to a “more radical internet.”
The extreme digital environment has led to dramatic manifestations of real-world violence 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 was the result of a wave of misinformation about election results.
At the request of the MIT Technology Review, Zignal conducted an analysis that looked specifically at how people interacted with different media sources over time on the issue of election confidence and voter integrity. The data shows that participation with less reliable sources on both the left and the right was closest to the elections and around the events of 6 January.
At the end of 2020, dealing with less reliable right-leaning sources in particular dominated the online conversation about voter integrity. This was also the time when the degree of voter integrity polarization was at its highest, reaching 95. According to the report, the high level of divisive discord over voter integrity “led to the January 6 events in the Capitol.”
It should be noted that highly credible right-leaning sources account for only 0.017% of the total voter integrity participation, while left-leaning credible sources account for about 36%.
According to a study conducted by Pew Research at the end of November 2020, 79% of Trump voters said the 2020 presidential election did not go well, compared to 6% of Biden voters.
Another election year is approaching, and conversations about the health of American democracy are back on the fore once again, leading to renewed pressure on social media.
However, some reasons for optimism can be found across the Atlantic. The European Union is looking at two major bills in the first half of 2022, called the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, led by the French government. The bills seek to clamp down on hate speech and the basic advertising model, which is generally seen as one of the primary challenges in stopping the spread of misinformation.