A recently published book called The Power of Us shares some really interesting insights about polarization, how it differs in modern times and what could be a possible solution. The authors describe traditional intergroup attitudes as: “They’re fine, but we’re great!”. Meaning: neutral feelings towards outgroups and positive attitudes towards the ingroup. However, in modern times, even though ingroup attitudes have stayed the same, the feelings towards outgroups have turned more sceptical. This is surprising because, as the author argues, the actual policy difference between (political) groups is not that big.
One of the reasons for this perceived polarization is social media. More and more studies show the somewhat perverse incentives of these platforms. For example, mocking or attacking opponents is far more likely to generate engagement than other types of messages. Social media platforms are driven by engagement and messages like this, in turn, get amplified. This creates a social media environment that emits an exaggerated and false sense of divide.
Often it is proposed that if only people would be exposed to opposing viewpoints, polarization would be decreased but research suggests this is not necessarily true in the age of social media. An experiment where people were offered money to follow Twitter bots that retweeted messages from opposing points of view had the adverse effect; pre-existing views were only strengthened.
Interestingly, something else did seem to work; kindness. A study showed people either kind or rude messages. Interestingly, the rude messages did not reduce trust or increase polarization, implying people have come to expect it. Kind messages, on the other hand, increased trust and reduced polarization, even when people disagreed on policy matters. This stresses the importance of respect and civility in the effort to reduce polarization.
Ever wondered what brands can do to facilitate a kind and genuine public debate?