11 experts explain how our digital world is fuelling polarization

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  • Tech companies built social media networks to connect us and search engines to give us better information about the world, yet Americans are becoming more divided than ever.
  • The tech industry isn’t entirely to blame for polarization, but there are influential economic, psychological, technological, and political forces that explain why it has played such a significant role.
  • Business Insider asked 11 experts on everything from conspiracies to digital ethnography to psychology to help explain some of the visible and invisible forces at work in our digital lives.
  • They revealed that Americans’ online worlds are much more polarised than our offline ones, and that learning more about how the internet works may help us reach some common ground.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of those with opposing views, and our increasingly digital lives are part of the problem.

Between 1975 and 2017, animosity between Democrats and Republicans nearly doubled, according to researchers from Stanford University. And that survey was conducted before most of Donald Trump’s presidency, before the COVID-19 pandemic, before George Floyd’s death, and before the 2020 US presidential election.

But polarization is a complicated topic, and the ways that technology influences our politics and democracy aren’t as simple as we’re often led to believe. There are multiple ways to measure polarization, for example, with each explaining a different way we’re divided. And “filter bubbles” vastly oversimplify the forces that shape how we interact online.

Documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” and “The Great Hack” have awakened many Americans to some of the powerful ways tech companies can, intentionally or unintentionally, influence our behaviour in the “real” world. Yet these explain only some of the economic, psychological, technological, and political forces at play.

Of course, the tech industry is only partly to blame — we play a significant role as users, consumers, and citizens as well. But that requires a deeper understanding of how the internet is designed so that we can navigate both our online and offline worlds in ways that humanize others, make us better informed, and help us find common ground.

To pull back the curtain on some of the internet’s invisible hands, Business Insider spoke with 11 experts whose backgrounds include, among other things, ethnography, misinformation, political science, cognitive psychology, media, and mental health.

Here’s what they had to say:


Individuals, communities, and the digital village

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Jolynna Sinanan, University of Sydney Jolynna Sinanan

Jolynna Sinanan, University of Sydney

So far, that conversation has been “all about the technology, according to Jolynna Sinanan, a digital ethnographer at the University of Sydney in Australia, “whereas it should be the other way around.” The internet and social media have only become widely used in the past decade or so, meaning we’re just beginning to establish norms around how people should or shouldn’t behave online.

Instead, she said, we should be asking “what does being a person in a community mean?”

In Trinidad, where Sinanan has spent the last few years researching social media usage, there are stronger desires to fit in with one’s community, while in America there is a stronger sense of individualism. Those values play out in people’s online behaviour, she said.

“All the sorts of extremes we’ve seen this year [in America] is very much the externalization of the ‘I matter as an individual,” she said, adding that Americans’ tendency to engage in political conversations with complete strangers or share conspiracy theories is partly because they place more value in their individual identity.

Interestingly, young people, Sinanan said, are “the first group to figure out” how social and cultural norms map to online spaces like TikTok and Snapchat, and “they learn about privacy, community, and the village, and how to negotiate that very, very early on.”

The internet, it turns out, may just need to grow up a bit.


Economic incentives

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Samantha Bradshaw, Stanford University Samantha Bradshaw

Samantha Bradshaw, Stanford University

No conversation about social media’s impact on our politics and democracy is complete without talking about their business models.

“One of the main tensions,” according to Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at Stanford who studies that exact intersection, “is this tension between the economic incentives of platforms, and then democracy.”

When Facebook designs its news feed, Twitter identifies trending topics, and YouTube recommends videos, their first goal is keeping us online longer because it helps them sell more ads and make more money, Bradshaw said, which can “conflict with more democratic design choices.”

As criticism of that business model has grown, companies have reframed that goal slightly. Instead of prioritising content that keeps us online longer, they’re now boosting posts and videos that drive “engagement,” or in Facebook’s case, “spark conversations” and lead to “meaningful social interactions.”

However, as Bradshaw pointed out: “things that are meaningful for conversation and for Facebook might not actually be meaningful for democracy.”

Research shows that people are more likely to engage with content when they’re angry and scared, and as a result, Bradshaw said, prioritising engaging content reinforces “affective polarization.”


Affective polarization

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Dr. Karin Tamerius, Smart Politics Karin Tamerius

Dr. Karin Tamerius, Smart Politics

The word “polarised” probably makes many Americans think about political polarization – that is, a wide gap between our political beliefs and preferences.

But in the US, it’s not our policy preferences that are growing farther apart, according to Dr. Karin Tamerius, a political and social psychologist who started Smart Politics, a progressive group focused on changing how people talk about politics.

“It’s emotional polarization, it’s what political scientists call ‘affective polarization,'” she said. “Most of all, it’s negative feelings about each other, so people on the left don’t like people on the right and people on the right don’t like people on the left, even though they’re not actually that much farther apart on policy than they were in the past.”

Social media has helped fuel that animosity by creating a space without a “clear set of norms,” which has in turn brought out people’s worst behaviour, Tamerius said. As hard as it is to have political conversations with people offline, she added, having them online without those norms “can really explode.”

“And if that’s the only interaction that people have with someone who thinks differently from them, it’s going to feed these perceptions that the other is bad or evil in some way,” she said.


Shades of grey

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Joel Benenson, Benenson Strategy Group Benenson Strategy Group

Joel Benenson, Benenson Strategy Group

Joel Benenson, a pollster who consulted for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 as well as Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, said that surveys his polling firm has conducted support the idea that Americans’ political beliefs actually haven’t shifted that dramatically in the past decade.

While those nuances often get lost on social media, Benenson said that’s one advantage of the survey methods that pollsters use – including online surveys, phone calls, text, and in-person focus groups – to learn about people’s beliefs and attitudes.

“What you have to do is continually ask questions that are provocative in ways that allow you to look at the answers not always as black-and-white questions,” he said, because “there are few attitudes or values that people bring to the table that don’t have shades of grey… they are not absolutist.”


Cognitive echo chambers

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Moshen Mosleh, MIT Mohsen Mosleh

Mohsen Mosleh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

One dimension where Americans are particularly divided, at least in terms of their social media habits, is their personality traits.

Mohsen Mosleh, a data scientist and cognitive psychologist at MIT, said that his research has identified “cognitive echo chambers.”

“People who rely more on their intuitions,” Mosleh said, tend to follow more promotional accounts and get-rich-quick scams. “Those who are analytical thinkers tend to avoid” those types of accounts, he said, instead favouring weightier topics such as politics.

Personality traits, like the “big five” (often referred to as OCEAN), are often more predictive of how we use social media than our political ideologies, Mosleh said.


Perceptual filtering

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David Sabin-Miller, Northwestern University David Sabin-Miller

David Sabin-Miller, Northwestern University

People may perceive the same political content differently based on how they view the world to begin with, and that can shift how they react to it.

David Sabin-Miller, a graduate student at Northwestern University, built a mathematical model to help explain how those subjective responses – a psychological phenomenon known as “perceptual filtering” – can fuel polarization online.

“Perceptual filtering is how we’re all participating in constructing our own distribution of content that is either comfortable to us or enticingly uncomfortable,” Sabin-Miller said, referring to content we disagree with but may enjoy consuming because it gives us a “sense of righteousness.”

As a result, even if society itself isn’t becoming more polarised, Sabin-Miller said, “individuals have a sort of feedback with the environment where they can push themselves farther and farther to one side of the other just because they’re fed different information.”


Conspiracy entrepreneurs

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Russell Muirhead, Dartmouth University Eli Burakian

Russell Muirhead, Dartmouth University

Before social media, most Americans got the bulk of their news from a handful of cable news stations, radio shows, and print newspapers or magazines. For economic reasons, those outlets often catered their content to broad audiences, meaning there was a larger common set of facts on which people based their opinions.

But social media platforms have created “information flows that fit our preferences pretty precisely,” according to Russell Muirhead, a political science professor at Dartmouth University.

In doing so, he said, they have created “conspiracy entrepreneurs.”

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have made it possible for creators to make money by attracting a much smaller number of people to their page or channel, even if they’re peddling dubious ideas or products, Muirhead said.

“If people can sell QAnon to a fairly narrow audience, they can make money doing that,” he said. “That didn’t used to exist, there was no occasion for that kind of entrepreneurial activity.”


Selective thinking

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Helen Lee Bouygues, Reboot Foundation Reboot Foundation

Helen Lee Bouygues, Reboot Foundation

Fake news and misinformation has undeniably been on the rise in recent years. But our susceptibility to it is, in part, actually a symptom of a lack of critical thinking skills suitable for the digital age, argues Helen Lee Bouygues, who launched her organisation, Reboot Foundation, to tackle that exact problem.

Social media platforms and search engines use algorithms and design choices that promote “selective thinking” – where we gravitate toward information that confirms our existing beliefs – rather than critical thinking, Bouygues said.

For example, Facebook makes it difficult to distinguish between a link from a reliable news source or government agency versus a random blogger, while Google surfaces sites you’ve viewed in the past and designs its results page so people rarely make it past the first few results.

Bouygues said we need more tools and skills to help us “fight against the challenges of digital learning and gathering information through visual media.”

“One of the biggest liberties is liberty of thinking,” she said. “If we can’t do our own metacognition and thinking about our own thinking, which is what critical thinking helps you do, then we’re just a little bit like the number in ‘Men In Black.'”


User-driven filter bubbles

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Francesca Tripodi, University of North Carolina Francesca Tripodi

Francesca Tripodi, University of North Carolina

Algorithms don’t just influence us, however, we also influence them.

“Users drive these filter bubbles as well,” according to Francesca Tripodi, a professor of sociology and media at the University of North Carolina.

Many people think of Google – which accounts for 90% of all online searches – and other search engines as neutral providers of information, but really they’re designed to return the results that are most relevant based on our search queries, Tripodi said.

“The keywords that we enter are driven by us, not by the search engine that we choose,” she said, giving the example of how searching for “undocumented workers” versus “illegal aliens” will return wildly different results about the topic of immigration.

“Because we come to these search engines with such drastically different ways of seeing the world,” Tripodi said, we’re essentially “keeping ourselves bubbled in information that only reaffirms what we already think we know about a topic.”

There’s a lot of focus on assessing the bias or credibility of an information source, but we also need to assess our starting point, Tripodi said.


Performative activism

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Tina Harris, Louisiana State University Louisiana State University

Tina Harris, Louisiana State University

After George Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism in America, social media became a major outlet for people to express their views on the topics.

That has exposed a lot of explicit racism, but also subtler – and sometimes more harmful – racism, according to Tina Harris, a professor of race, media, and literacy at Louisiana State University.

Harris described a phenomenon of “performative activism,” where people say they support social justice on public social media profiles, but their words and actions in their private, social, and professional lives at times have the opposite impact.

“‘It’s not just, what are they presenting on social media, but what happens when the camera is away,” she said. “Their public face and their private face – do they actually match up?”

Harris said the Kardashians come to mind as one example of this because, while they have used their social media followings to push for things like prison reform and protest hate speech, they have also engaged in lots of cultural appropriation.


Offline recovery

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Jonathan Jenkins, Massachusetts General Hospital Jonathan Jenkins

Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, Massachusetts General Hospital

There’s a growing body of research showing how social media networks exploit our psychology and emotions to keep us online longer. But just as important is what that keeps us from doing instead.

Jenkins, who helps everyone from athletes to first responders to executives develop mental strategies to cope with stress and anxiety, said that a key focus of his coaching is mental and physical recovery. Addiction to social media, he said, can also keep us from recovering properly.

“It takes away time that people could be resting and recovering and building their mental health or their emotional health and resilience,” he said. An hour on social media could be spent meditating, taking a nap, reconnecting with family and friends, planning for the next day so it’s not so stressful, or just relaxing.

Fortunately, Jenkins added, “you don’t need it as much as you think you do. You existed completely in a healthy way before social media.”