New data show that the polarization of the political discourse on the web has remained largely unchanged since the end of 2020. It is probably not surprising if one has looked at the internet at all in the past year. But the data also show an underlying pattern in which individual issues – such as abortion and immigration – shifted to create division. While people were consistently crazy online about political issues, the issues that ignited conversations changed dramatically over the course of the year.
The data, which comes from a joint project between Zignal Labs, a social media intelligence platform, and the University of Southern California, helps explain why political discourse may have worked in 2021 as an endless carousel of outrage.
Zignal and USC teamed up to create the Polarization Index, which measures engagement with polarized content on Twitter and calculates a polarization score. Since the index began tracking conversations last year, major political events such as the January 6 uprising, the transition from the Trump to the Biden administration, and the bulk of the covid-19 vaccine rollout have taken place. All the while, the PI score has hardly moved.
While Twitter is far from a perfect proxy for broader division, online platforms play a hugely important role in shaping the political discourse. Social media platforms like Meta (formerly Facebook) have again been under scrutiny this year, which has led to new doubts about the ethics of these platforms and how they can address misinformation, extremism and hate speech online.
There is a long-running academic debate on how to measure polarization, and a clear standard has not yet emerged. This index is the average polarization score for 10 policy topics – immigration, policing, racism, abortion, voting integrity, gun laws, climate change, minimum wage, covid-19 vaccines and health care reform – on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 is absolute polarization). The polarization result is calculated by combining the amount of sharing of news links on Twitter with bias and reliability ratings from the media sources that publish the shared content, assuming that a “low-reliability source at each end of the Political Party spectrum is more polarizing. than a share from highly reliable, more centralized sources. ”
The grouping of media sources by bias and reliability comes from the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart, an independent news content rating company that determines political propensity and evaluates reliability based on original fact reporting.
Why it felt so bad to be online this year
The polarization index started with a score of 85.5 at the end of 2020, which researchers called a “critical” level. The score dropped only 3 points in early 2021 and has been constant ever since.
Currently, immigration is the most polarized topic measured by the index, followed by police policy, racialism and gun laws. At a subject level, changes in polarization were much more common, and degrees of polarization seemed to shift from subject to subject, keeping the overall score high.
Voting integrity, for example, was the second most controversial issue in the 4th quarter of 2020 and then dropped to sixth out of 10 and rose back to fifth place in the second half of 2021.
Research published along with the Polarization Index also showed that news articles on the most polarized topics were more likely to come from unreliable, right-wing sources. The report says that “engagement with right-wing sources was more likely to push the conversation in an increasingly polarized direction.”
As an example, this was the case for immigration, the most polarized topic: from the end of 2020 to the third quarter of 2021, right-wing sources with medium and low reliability came to dominate the conversation, and polarization scores rose from 84.8 to 100.3 in during the year. The pattern is consistent for the other highly polarized items.
What is to come
In line with the results of the research from Zignal, it is well documented that more extreme content also tends to be more misleading.
Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media and Communications program at Columbia University, says, “A lot of the disinformation is top-down. It comes from heads of state, it comes from politicians.” Schiffrin also attributes the problem to the lack of “gatekeepers” to monitor the flow of content, instead algorithmic recommendation systems on social media platforms tend to amplify extreme material, which Schiffrin says leads to a more “extreme internet.”
The extreme digital environment led to dramatic displays of violence in the real world this year. Examples of this relationship include Facebook’s role in the violence following the coup in Myanmar and the January 6 uprising in the United States, which was the result of a barrage of misinformation about the election results.
At the request of the MIT Technology Review, Zignal conducted an analysis that specifically looked at how people engaged with different media sources over time on the issue of electoral trust and voter integrity. Data show that engagement with less reliable sources on both the left and right was greatest closest to the election and around the events of 6 January.
By the end of 2020, engagement with less reliable right-wing sources in particular dominated the online conversation about voter integrity. This was also the time when the polarization score for voter integrity was at its highest, reaching 95. According to the report, the high level of strife driven by division over voter integrity led to the events of January 6 in the Capitol.
In particular, highly reliable right-wing sources account for only 0.017% of the total engagement on the topic of voter integrity, while highly reliable left-wing sources account for around 36%.
According to a Pew Research survey 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 just around the corner, and talks on the health of American democracy are back on track, putting renewed pressure on social media.
However, some reason for optimism can be found across the Atlantic. The European Union is looking at two major bills in early 2022, called the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, led by the French government. The bills seek to crack down on hate speech and the underlying advertising model that is generally considered to be one of the most fundamental challenges in stopping the spread of misinformation.