Why we constantly divide ourselves into “us” and “them” on social networks?
Scholars observe that social media debates tend to polarize in exactly two opinion groups. When society develops into fractions that are unable to communicate with each other, society weakens. For society to develop, society needs a healthy debate, open, constructive, balanced, to remain strong and vital.
Polarization is not a new problem, nor is it a specific issue of the digital age. Groups were prone to polarization long before the rise of the Internet and social media.
How is it that polarization is so conducive to the digital environment?
Does the Internet provoke a more polarized public opinion and intensify the differences and confrontations between different groups?
‘We’ and ‘they’ phenomenon
The polarization itself is not a problem. Having a different opinion or disagreement with people who have a different opinion is a sign of a healthy personality. Being different is a desirable characteristic of a person, and diversity is a desirable virtue of society.
However, polarization on the Internet is a deeper problem. It is marked by strong negative emotions. And it tends to make rival groups, which are strongly opposed to one another.
Let’s take a look at the role of traditional and social media in the development of polarization, as they are pillars of information and places that bring together homogeneous groups of people.
Media news can be reliable, but never completely objective: there will always be a point of view. People incline to choose a source of information that better fits their point of view.
This is how anti-vaxxers will turn to media and groups promoting conspiracy theories; right-wingers to those who support the traditional values of the family, nation or the church.
And then what happens?
It happens that there are “we” and “they”, where “they” are in fact – our enemies.
“They” are certainly wrong and “we” are certainly right.
Why groups tend to polarize?
There are mainly three reasons why groups tend to polarize:
Arguments and information
Normally, people should change their minds in line with the most convincing opinion.
But if a person already belongs to his group and has limited access to a different opinion, he will receive a disproportionate number of opinions that confirm his beliefs (confirmation bias) and a disproportionately small amount of different arguments. This is why group affiliation, like polarization, is certainly enhanced.
People care about their reputation and want to be accepted in their group.
Belonging to a group begins by sharing the same opinion with the group. If people think in line with dominant thinking and express only dominant views, nothing will damage their reputation within the group. They are therefore inclined to align with dominant thinking, while minority opinions are lost in the silence.
Polarization increases when people feel more confident.
If one is unsure about the answers to a problem, then there is less chance that one can develop extreme beliefs about the issue. Confirming and agreeing with other group members can increase one’s confidence. Affirmation received from others consequently leads to more extreme expression of opinion and this, in turn, to polarization.
Big 3 of biases that influence our opinion
While we believe that we have been completely free to form our own opinions and that we want to hear others’ arguments and participate in an argumentative debate, we are influenced, even without notice, by (and above all) algorithms.
So, on the Internet, three different dynamics promote the development and spread of group polarization:
- personal preferences (individual level),
- the formation of closed-door communities called echo-chambers (social level)
- and selective action of Facebook’s, Google’s and other programming algorithms (technological level).
Therefore, these are elements of three different types of bias:
“bias in the brain, bias in society, bias in the machine”— Ciampaglia, & Menczer
Together they combine phenomena like isolating the community, reinforcing fragmentation and easier manipulation.
If you want to better understand the online community of your country or your environment or to understand how your community shapes attitudes and who influences them, who are the real social influencers and who are confirmation biases, CONTACT US. Our team is not only experienced in this, but we are also the pioneers of this type of research in the Balkans.