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Social media and polarization: European and North American perspectives

Political polarization is widely considered to be rising across Western democracies. Yet, scholars are struggling to arrive at a commonly accepted definition of polarization and – perhaps more importantly – an understanding of what explains it. Broadly speaking, polarization refers to the widening of public opinion into extremist camps. This phenomenon is increasingly pronounced in United States and Britain, where actors like Donald Trump or issues like Brexit divide publics into simple for and against dichotomies. But these cases are largely two-party systems, where polarization is rather straightforward to measure. Is polarization rising in the European Union, where diverse cultures, histories, and political systems make the picture more complex?

One factor that unites the US and EU is the widespread adoption of social media in both contexts. Several scholars have argued that social media use increases polarization, since citizens can access information distributed by like-minded news sources. However, mounting empirical reveals that citizens are actually exposed to a diverse array of political opinions on social media, and the overall effect of being exposed to information online is small. Since media exposure does not provide conclusive answers regarding the influence of social media on public opinion, an unresolved conundrum remains regarding the relationship between social media and polarization.

On November 12 2018, a symposium arranged by the CFE investigated this dilemma by asking two questions: Does social media use affect polarization? And how we can we study political polarization in a transatlantic context?

To answer the question, guests from both North America and Europe have approached the issue through various lenses:

  • Pascal Jürgens (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany) investigated algorithmic bias and its potential effects on polarization at a general level.
  • Shelley Boulianne (Mac Ewan University, Canada) presented the results of a meta-analysis of over 160 studies on social media and political polarization, and brought the example of a Canadian case-study of crisis communication via Twitter and Facebook.
  • Liliana Mason (University of Maryland, USA) presented her book Uncivil Agreement, in which she analyzed affective polarization in the US. She argued that group identifications have changed the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents.
  • Vaclav Stetka (Loughborough University, UK), looked at Czech audiences of fringe outlets that are known for spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories.
  • Anamaria Dutceac Segesten (Lund University, Sweden) and Michael Bossetta (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) presented their work on cross-wall comments on Facebook about Brexit and identified an uneven echo chamber effect, with Remain being self-contained and Leave more outreaching across ideological lines.
  • Hanna Bäck (Lund University, Sweden) discussed elite polarization by performing a longitudinal analysis of parliamentary speeches in Sweden.
  • Shanto Iyengar (Stanford University, USA), presented evidence showing increased partisan animus in the US over the past three decades, which could be explained by the online "echo chambers" argument.
  • Dhavan Shah (University of Wisconsin, USA), presented a time series analysis of mass shootings reactions on Twitter, which revealed a strong presence of a pro-gun lobby discourse and a lack of visibility of African-American victims of gun violence.

 

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Centrum för Europaforskning

Ekonomihögskolan vid Lunds universitet
Box 7080, SE-220 07 LUND

info [at] cfe [dot] lu [dot] se