Political polarization is one of the most worrisome phenomena even in established democracies—or perhaps especially in established democracies. With a divided electorate and a legislature unable to compromise, the business of governing essentially comes to a standstill. And damage will be done. There is little doubt that the media plays a significant role in confirming people’s political views, forming them, and eventually cementing them. Novelist Stephen King recently had a brilliant idea for countering polarization of the media and the audience—force people to watch media from the political side that is opposite their own.
Recent events made me think about a particular chicken and egg problem: What comes first, political polarization or media polarization? And how much damage can media polarization do in a political system? The answer to the first question is probably: they’re mutually reinforcing, but the media wouldn’t be polarized if there wasn’t a polarized audience to begin with. The answer to the second question is less obvious, but relevant to all political systems where the media can tip the scales toward one side or the other, or possibly one extreme or the other.
It is a commonplace by now that the fragmented media landscape in many countries, much amplified by online media, allows members of the audience to get exposed only to political content that they actually agree with. There is so much out there, you never really need to listen to the other side. In the recent Presidential elections in the United States, this led to a curious phenomenon. The media on the right, and also voters on the right that mainly focused on those media, were convinced that their candidate would win and were genuinely surprised when he didn’t. The media on the left played the same trick on its audience. The media in the middle covered the election as if it was a close race, which it wasn’t, in order not to scare part of their audience away. Overall, one had to turn to foreign media to lose some of the bias.
Listening to at least two sides of an argument is usually a good thing. But when it comes to sustaining mass public action, this may not be the case. For most people, the willingness to take a stand in the public arena, despite the risk of injury or death, requires clarity, courage, and the dogged pursuit of a vision shared with like-minded others. If saddled with the weight of competing considerations, people might just decide to stay home.
A few weeks ago David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, unearthed the roots of an important discussion that began with Cass Sunstein’s 2001 essay entitled “The Daily We: Is the internet really a blessing for democracy?” Brooks’ take on Sunstein branches in two directions: tension and composure. Tension because “the internet might lead us to a more ghettoized, polarized and insular electorate”. Composure due to recent work by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro called “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline” which presents a different take on our what Sunstein called “personalization”.
- East Asia and Pacific
- Europe and Central Asia
- Latin America & Caribbean
- Middle East and North Africa
- South Asia
- Information and Communication Technologies
- internet penetration
- social media
- Web 2.0
- ideological segregation online and offline
- Berkman Center for Internet and society
- Cass Sunstein
- David Brooks
- digital media
- Communications architecture