Polarization studies are media studies
Fake news is not the principal problem in the new media environment. The impact of fake news is already mitigated by the users’ growing immunity and also by the growing noise that diminishes the potency of fake news’ impact. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
The critical issue of the new media environment is polarization.
With digital media proliferation, the environmental impact of media has imploded. Media are no longer an external environmental force that impacts cultural and other forms of human life; cultural life itself happens to be completely immersed into the media environment.
The digital is not a part of the culture; it is its space, its environment in a very literal and physical sense. The old physical space of culture has only held onto some residual forms of cultural activities. Politics, social life and the economy operate now almost entirely inside the digital environment. The materiality of human life artifacts has become digital. This is not just a growing mediatization of culture, this is culture’s complete resettling into the media environment.
As human activity has moved almost entirely into the digital, the socialization of people also now occurs in the digital environment. Therefore, the conditions of socialization are predefined by the media settings of the digital environment. People now socialize not under the conditions of physical communication, but with their digital selves fully immersed into the digital media environment.
Therefore, polarization in the contemporary culture also has media roots, or even predominantly media roots.
In the pre-digital environment, polarization had well-known capacities and limitations imposed by the physical forms of socialization. Social rigidity, resistance of the established order and the risks of physical personal and social interaction helped to keep polarization at bay.
Those restraints do not work in the digital environment. Not only have the physical restraints of polarization become irrelevant in the digital environment, the digital environment has imposed its own features that directly incentivize polarization. As a result, instead of the former ‘physically’ maintained restraints of polarization, society has acquired the digital amplifiers of polarization.
Studies show that political polarization in the US reached a low point in the 1950s (Pew Research Center, 2017; Napoli & Dwyer, 2018) and started skyrocketing in the late 2000s, which clearly coincided with the spread of social media and the decline of the advertising model in the news media (Figure 14).
The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.
Source: Pew Research Center.
Different media effects can be held accountable for four different dimensions of polarization.
1) Affective polarization. On social media, the ‘struggle for recognition’ amid increasing noise incentivizes extremes and radical views because they have a higher potential for response and, therefore, virality. The effect: people’s animosity.
2) Agenda-setting polarization. On social media, the emancipated authorship allows for the crowdsourced formation of agendas, which particularly empowers evidence and opinions that are underrepresented and suppressed in the mainstream mass media. The effect: new media oppose the old establishment.
3) Rebound agenda-setting polarization. Competing with social media for the audience’s attention, the mass media are forced to amplify or oppose (and amplify) topics that are preselected by the Viral Editor on social media, which are already inherently polarized and polarizing. The effect: old media oppose new media and each other.
4) Ideological polarization. In the mass media, soliciting for subscription as donation incentivizes the selection of the topics that are most donatable, which are most likely politically polarizing topics, as they are the most triggering. The effect: irreconcilable partisanship.
Social media are designed to encourage user engagement. Because of ‘the thirst for response’ (Miroshnichenko, 2014, p. 12), which can be referred to as the Hegelian ‘struggle for recognition’, emancipated authors (all of us) get involved in self-actualization through others — through their likes, comments, shares and other forms of automated and accelerated social exchange. Compared to offline social practices, social media have powerfully facilitated socialization.
But this service comes with a disservice. The increase in the speed of socialization has a price. The best mechanisms for gaining a response are simultaneously the most harmful for human relations. The fight for likes turns into just a fight. Automated social grooming inevitably rises to hysterical levels and turns into its opposite — a brawl, in full accordance with McLuhan’s Fourth Law of Media (a medium reverses its effect when pushed to an extreme — McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988).
Two communication stunts are the most efficient at attracting reaction: the oddity push and the extremity push. They are interconnected: the push for oddity, when taken to its extreme, becomes the push for extremity.
The attractiveness of oddity has always accompanied mass communication. Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote about medieval chroniclers readily reporting about “comets and monsters”:
The news value of the odd as opposed to the ordinary event is still rated high even in these impious days. Insofar as they viewed dog-biting men as more newsworthy than man-eating dogs, monkish chroniclers had more in common with modern journalists than with medieval natural philosophers. (Eisenstein, 1979, KL14566.)
As Yuri Lotman put it in Unpredictable mechanisms of culture, “Habitual is invisible; turning habitual into unusual makes it tangible” (Lotman, 2010, p. 102). Objects that are aligned with the environment are less visible. The same goes for action: odd actions are more noticeable.
Oddity is the most noticeable distinction. People tend to avoid oddity in physical action, labor performance and social interaction, but they willingly use it in the arts, where oddity becomes deliberately instrumentalized in styles, genres and performances. The use of oddity has become a beneficial strategy on social media, pushed by the thirst for response.
On social media, the same features that provide an amazing service of self-actualization — rapid responsiveness, engagement, virality — simultaneously propel the extremization of expression. If the great Nero burned down Rome for inspiration, the miserable Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis to be noticed.
As many studies have shown, social media posts that express odd or radical views and ideas have a higher potential of being liked, commented on and shared. Robert Kozinets from Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California studied the “sharing of images of food” on social media. The research indicated that people tend to share “images of food that look less and less like what regular people eat every day.” The reason was that,
…the algorithms that drive participation and attention-getting in social media, the addictive “gamification” aspects such as likes and shares, invariably favored the odd and unusual. When someone wanted to broaden out beyond his or her immediate social networks, one of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal turned out to be by turning to the extreme.
As a result of such an environmental setting, “the most popular food porn images depicted massive hamburgers that were impossible to eat.”
Indeed, regular food (and regular whatever) cannot trigger a strong response. Modesty is a lost cause on social media.
The same amplifying setups work, of course, for political content. Brady et al. studied pre-election tweets of politicians and found “a ‘moral contagion’ effect: elites’ use of moral-emotional language was robustly associated with increases in message diffusion.” They concluded that,
Specific moral emotion expressions related to moral outrage — namely, moral anger and disgust — were particularly impactful for elites across the political spectrum, whereas moral emotion expression related to religion and patriotism were more impactful for conservative elites. (Brady et al., 2018).
The research suggested that, “if politicians want to maximize their impact on Twitter, they need to resort to more moral and emotive vocabulary.”
A study by Pew Research found that the Facebook audience was 21% to 22% more likely to share
congressional posts containing news links from partisan outlets than when the link came from a news source that fell in the middle. In terms of response and the desired virality of a politician’s presence on social media, people react ‘better’ to what gravitates to the extremes of the spectrum. Therefore, politicians, as with any other influencers and ordinary users seeking a response, must post more radical views and links in order to be better noticed and gain more engagement.
Whether it be the views of endorsement or opposition, the most radical of them have a higher response potential. Centrist or moderate views simply have a lower prospect of being shared. Those expressing radical views on social media have more of a chance to gain a response in the form of comments, likes and shares. The amplification of extremes inevitably leads to polarization in the public sphere. The more the public sphere adopts social media, the more polarized people become.
The algorithms have learnt this tendency from human psychology and peddle content that will most likely be reacted to. Extremes are environmentally promoted by social platform settings on both levels: human and algorithmic.
Godwin’s Law, which states that the likelihood of a conversation’s participants being compared to Hitler increases in the course of online conversation, perfectly illustrates the principle of affective polarization. Affective polarization both eliminates the middle and amplifies the extremes.
Print, with its delayed reactions to linear thought, started the Age of Reason; social media with their instant service of accelerated self-actualization has turned the Age of Reason into the Age of Rage.
This mechanism of polarization is not political in itself. It is purely a media-environmental mechanism driven by the thirst for response, with social media being the best spring found by humankind so far for quenching this thirst. Social media accumulate and release an incredible potential of affective polarization simply by offering people an opportunity to socialize.
Social media were not always seen in a negative light. Before becoming a supplier of fake news and disinformation and before being an efficient tool of discord in the savvy hands of Russian operatives, social media were praised for spreading democracy during the time of the Arab spring and other Twitter revolutions. How did they turn from good to evil in less than 10 years?
The emancipation of authorship (Miroshnichenko, 2014) in the new media environment deprived the traditional media of their historical monopoly over agenda-setting. Thus, social media challenged the dominant worldviews established by the mainstream media. As Martin Gurri put it, “[t]he mediators lose their legitimacy”. This was a factor that contributes to a “crisis of authority” (Gurri, 2018, p. 396).
The conflict between traditional and new media can be interpreted as a struggle between two modes of agenda-setting.
The broadcasting mode of agenda-setting is inherent to the legacy media. It is pyramidal — the agenda spreads along the force lines of vertical social gravity, top-to-bottom, center-to-periphery. It is economically and/or politically controlled by the elites and based on established institutions. The broadcasted agenda is created before distribution by news media editors according to their educated and class-affiliated preferences.
The engaging mode of agenda-setting was introduced by social media. It is dispersed and cloud-shaped — the agenda spreads in all directions within overlapped social graphs. It is controlled by participants through their natural (or artfully crafted) propensity to gather around the coagulating centers of social gravitas. The engaging agenda is created in the process of distribution by the Viral Editor (Miroshnichenko, 2014) or by the newsfeed algorithms of relevance (Pariser, 2011).
The conflict between two modes of agenda-setting is not political in nature; it is a morphological incongruity, a clash between the Pyramid and the Cloud.
It is not new media that solely drive changes in the media environment. The presence of old media is equally crucial. The tension between the broadcasting and engaging modes of agenda-setting, between Pyramidal social gravity and Cloud social gravitation is required for significant cultural change and social upheaval to happen. There always must be two poles made into a circuit to reveal the difference of potentials. Polarization is an intrinsic morphological condition in an environment where new media are displacing old ones.
These conditions appeared in the late 2000s, when social media proliferated enough for their mode of agenda-setting to start challenging the agendas propelled by old media. Before social media, the internet performed functions of old media (McLuhan’s principle of the rearview mirror) — web 1.0 was a library, a diary, a post service and a tool of personal and mass communication: telegraph/radio/TV/telephone. Social media and smartphones unleashed the true environmental power of the internet. The Pyramid lost its monopoly and the Cloud charged forward.
Street riots and electoral upheavals were created not by social media but as a resolution of the tension between the broadcasting and engaging modes of agenda-setting. The inclusive agenda of social media with users’ self-made ‘truth’ (actually, post-truth) overlapped and clashed with the exclusive agenda of the mainstream media with its broadcasted and impenetrable ‘absolute truth’, which turned out to be a lie. When people see how significantly the agenda imposed upon them by the mainstream media differs from what they and their peers want to discuss online, they get galvanized. Further, social media provides the space and tools for this galvanization to be expressed, verified, amplified and coordinated.
This conflict of the agenda-setting modes took place in every society where social media interfered in the media landscape. It first occurred in the late 2000s, when educated and progressive urban youth around the world became the pioneers of digitalization and embraced the opportunity to collectively express their views, which initially were non-political.
Soon, the discrepancy between the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ agendas became apparent. Suppressed in
the mainstream, the displaced views found alternative release in the rarified atmosphere of free expression on social media. This ‘meteorological’ mechanism of storm creation was not initially political; it was purely media environmental in nature. But empowering of the alternative agendas leads unavoidably to the question about agenda control, which is a political question. The competition between two modes of agenda-setting evolves into the questioning of power. Sooner or later, the media battle of agendas recruits political content (Gurri, 2018, p. 50; Miroshnichenko, 2014, p. 51).
Numerous protests and revolutions broke out across the globe in the early 2010s including the Arab Spring (2009–11), Occupy Wall Street (2011), the ‘social justice’ protests in Israel (2011), the Indignados protests in Spain (2011), the student protests in Greece (2010–11), the anti-Putin protests in Moscow (2011–12), the Taksim Square Protests in Turkey (2013), among others.
However, by 2016, social media had spread widely and permeated society deeply enough to allow other social strata to participate in agenda-setting. No longer was it just the educated, urban and progressive youth who were emancipated and empowered by social media. Everyone had obtained access. The second wave of social media-driven protests started in the West.
In the countries with more or less established electoral democracy, this conservative (often labeled right-wing) backlash has manifested itself in unexpected (by the mainstream media) electoral outcomes. Such were the electoral results in
- Germany — 2017: the right-wing AfD took third place, having sprung out of nowhere
- Brazil — 2018: the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election
- Australia — 2019: the center-right Scott Morrison was unexpectedly re-elected
- India — 2019: the right-leaning nationalist Narendra Modi unexpectedly increased its tally in the parliament
- UK — 2019: Boris Johnson demolished his opponents; thus Brexit, however shocking it was in 2016, struck again
Many other countries have seen similar ‘unexpected’ electoral outcomes.
In developing countries, the second, conservative wave of social media-related protests led to grassroots nativist or religious extremist movements, which were anti-establishment in their nature, too.
Trump’s victory was the successful completion of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Now, the third wave of political effects caused by social media is on its way. This time, these are media that empower the instant emotional perception of reality, based on video fragments, such as TikTok and respective formats on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This is going to shape agendas in a completely new way, with no requirements for literacy, rationality or fact-checking. This new mode of agenda-setting will most likely bring a new wave of upheavals, this time more radical. Starting, againg, with the younger demographics who are completely out of touch with traditional political parties’ agendas, and extremely anti-institutional — with a respective degree of polarization.
Rebound agenda-setting polarization
The engaging mode of agenda-setting on social media empowers agendas that are underrepresented in the mainstream media. When the difference between the engaging agendas of new media and the broadcasted agenda of old media becomes critically significant, social disturbances begin.
However, old media now exist in the same information space as new media — the digital space. They both compete for the audience’s attention and time spent. The old media need to engage in competition. The alternative agenda of social media challenges the mainstream agenda of old media, so they strike back, reacting to, fact-checking and disseminating what was disseminated on social media. The content of new media shapes and reshapes the content of old media.
As the space for the agendas’ encounter is digital, old media need to compete with new media by the rules of new media. In addition to the fact that this worsens the chances of old media, the competition further plunges old media into the escalation of polarization in two ways:
1) the news media join affective polarization
2) the news media deploy rebound agenda-setting polarization — they re-broadcast initially engaging, participatory agendas and amplify or oppose (and amplify) topics that are preselected by the Viral Editor on social media.
Being aimed at a fast and broad response, preferably a viral one, the social media environment incentivizes more radical expression. To keep up in this race, the mass media have to play by the same rules. The mass media try to harness the same forces of attention-grabbing that drive social media. The amplification of extremes is one of these key forces. In old media, this is becoming reflected not only in headline choices, but also in the choice of topics, experts, pictures, etc.
Many of the technological, professional and ethical disruptions in journalism practice have come from the impact social media have had on old media: clickbait, traffic race, churnalism, hamsterization, and others. The radicalization of expression to the extent that would have been seen as excessive even for propaganda is becoming the new normal in postjournalism. The audience of old media is getting used to engaging with media content with the same behavioral patterns that work on social media.
The economy of both old media and new media is based on audience engagement. New media want users to reveal more preferences and spend more time on the platform for the sake of better exposure to advertising. Old media want users to join the cause they promote and spare some money on subscription for support (or time and cable fees — in the case of TV).
The competition for the limited audience’s time, coupled with content interdependence and mutual flak, tied old and new media into a united media environment. All the polarizing forces enclosed in old and new media trigger a multistrand polarizing vortex that sucks up everything around it.
The polarization of the joint media environment is growing even stronger because of the morphological asymmetry in media consumption. Deprived of representation in the most mainstream media, the conservatives resort to their own online platforms and networks, winning followers with the new weaponry of memes, bot-farming and trolling. Having monopolized most of the mainstream media, the progressives dominate in traditional political discursive formats.
The fact that traditional political discourses led by the progressives do not intersect with the new media weaponry employed by the conservatives, except for the scoreboards of the election outcomes, makes them even more estranged and reinforces polarization even further.
Ideological polarization is based on the confrontation of different value systems. Value systems compete for people; therefore, the polarizing effect of ideologies is inevitable. The mass media are one of the best conduits for values. They can be involved in ideological polarization due to either their ideological biases or the influence of their business models.
Open ideological biases and political endorsements of the media are defined by their deliberate choice and usually are well-noticed by the audience and the public. A political stance of a publisher or the party funding of a media outlet usually raises no questions. The open political involvement of the media is what allowed the public sphere to emerge. Political funding obviously makes the media biased and therefore contributes to the ‘common’, political type of ideological polarization.
The ideological biases induced by business models are harder to notice.
In a media market based on ad revenue, the media must maintain political stability and social coherence, a media function Lippmann referred to as “the manufacture of consent” (and Herman and Chomsky after him).
In a media market with large and growing significance of soliciting subscription as a donation to the cause, the media must maintain political trauma and social disarray, a function that can be referred to as the manufacture of anger.
Thus, the media profiting from ad revenue unite the public; the media profiting from donscription (soliciting subscription as donations) revenue divide the public.
“Is not the essence of education civil defense against media fallout?” (Marshall McLuhan)
Media polarization leads to the dehumanizing of opponents, which is, actually, a propagandist
prerequisite for the physical neutralization of the enemy in conditions of war. Physical neutralization now even has its virtual equivalent in the digital reality. This equivalent has become easily demanded and applied. Technically speaking, polarization ends up in the implicit or explicit calls for the ‘digitally-physical’ neutralization of opponents, as they are not worthy humans. This would have been deemed as a war crime or an example of totalitarian terror in the physical reality, but it has become a daily Two-Minutes-Hate routine on social media, often exercised by educated and polite people who would otherwise never allow themselves to engage in it in real in-person communication. This is, no doubt, a media effect. They do it under the influence of media.
The same is true for the news media: they evolve towards postjournalism because of the change in their business model. Recognizing it, primarily by professionals in the media but also by the audience, will help in understanding the roots of polarization. Environmental awareness does not release actors from responsibility for what they so routinely do, but it helps to see how people are pushed by the environment and that they might deserve some compassion and sometimes even some forgiveness.
By exposing the fact that animosity and polarization are not solely human features but media-environmental effects, media education can rehumanize people: it can reverse the dehumanizing effect of polarization. These are not people from the left or the right that would like to annihilate each other; this is a systemic design that makes people lean to extremes in order for the system to capitalize on polarization. Acknowledgment of these environmental forces and understanding its mechanisms and power will help people to avoid the dehumanizing of opponents and tolerate, at least to some degree, the otherness of others on the internet, social media and in the news media.
Increasing the awareness of media polarization may help to cope with its effects, but it will not eliminate its settings. Is it possible to re-engineer the systemic settings of social media and the news media that incite polarization?
In a paradoxical way, digital ochlocracy depends on digital capitalism. These two forms of power have shaped their symbiotic relations in a similar way as representative democracy depended on industrial capitalism, with old media being a communicative platform. Now, digital platforms give the crowds on the right and on the left power that they otherwise would have never had access to; the mass media reinforce and articulate this power into political discourses. In return, the crowds provide platforms and the media with a degree of engagement that allows for monetization. Populism and polarization are structurally embedded into this social-economic symbiosis. This hardware can and must work only with this software.
Is it possible to rearrange the economic and behavioral rewards for media use in such a manner that they incentivize people’s engagement based if not on consensus, then at the very least on tolerance instead of polarization? This is a million-dollar question, literally; though, considering the capitalization of Google and Facebook, it is more like a billion-dollar question.
Anti-polarizing efforts by no means relate to the balancing of the opposites. They relate to silencing the extremes and vocalizing the middle. How can the middle become better responded to, better liked, shared, more popular, and more profitable for social capital and commercial monetization at the level of the very design of social media and the news media? The answer to this question is surely worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
 The collective mechanism of news selection and micro-editing during viral distribution (Miroshnichenko 2014).
 Kozinets, Robert. (2017, November 13). “How social media fires people’s passions — and builds extremist divisions.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-social-media-fires-peoples-passions-and-builds-extremist-divisions-86909.
 de-Wit, Lee, Brick, Cameron, and van der Linden, Sander. (2019, January 16). “Are Social Media Driving Political Polarization?” Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_media_driving_political_polarization
 Messing, Solomon, van Kessel, Patrick, and Hughes, Adam. (2017). “Sharing the News in a Polarized Congress,” Pew Research Center. http://www.people-press.org/2017/12/18/sharing-the-news-in-a-polarized-congress/.
 Mir, Andrey. (2019, December 25). “The Pyramid against the Cloud: Institutions’ perplexity regarding the Net.” Human as Media blog. https://human-as-media.com/2019/12/25/the-pyramid-against-the-cloud-institutions-perplexity-regarding-the-net/
Categories: Decline of newspapers, Emancipation of Authorship, Future of journalism, Marshall McLuhan, Media ecology, Post Truth Fake News, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news, Viral Editor
Originally published at http://human-as-media.com on November 9, 2020.