What social science is telling us about polarisation. Part 3

Despite George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, there has been a constant battle between rational, comprehensible language and obfuscation and propaganda, and the questions he raised are doubly pertinent in an era which has witnessed a new fall of rationality in language.

Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Else Weinans and Johan Bullen address the issue in a PNAS paper (2 November 2021). They say: “The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning.”

The methodology they used was to analyse language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 in Google Books (yah boo hiss about the source but not the motivation) and found that the use of words associated with rationality such as ‘determine’ and ‘conclusion’ rose systematically after 1850 while words such as ‘feel’ and believe declined in usage.

“This pattern reversed in the 1980s and the change accelerated around 2007,” they said. The pattern was common to both fiction and non-fiction books and to check it wasn’t just a product of books as the same results were found with a similar analysis of the New York Times for the same period.

“All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has ben a sharp shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.”

This is manifested in the rise and fall of specific words such as spirit, owe and awful declining before 1980 but rising after compared with words rising before 1980 and declining after: zone, tested, budget, involved.

They also confess that “Inferring the drivers of this stark pattern necessarily remain speculative as language is affected by many overlapping social and cultural; changes speculating about the impact of rapid technological and scientific change from 1850 to 1980; the start of the Internet; the Global Financial Crisis and tensions created by neo-liberal policies”.

Nevertheless. they argue, “Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global warming, poverty and the loss of nature.”

Other research suggests people are finding it harder and harder to discern what is true and what is not. Gordon Pennycock, Ziv Epstein and Mohsen Mosley report in Nature (17 March 2021) that they showed 36 headlines to a thousand experimental participants – half were true and half false – some favouring political left positions and some right. Others were asked which headlines were accurate and reports of real events.

In the experiment most people had no trouble distinguishing between truth and lies but when asked which they would share they ignored the difference and happily shared headlines which matched their political views.

Pennycock, in a separate study, found that fake news is often shared not because of malice or ineptitude but because of impulse or inattention. Pennycock says: “People are lazy. If you force people to give intuitive responses, responses they aren’t permitted to really think that much about, it makes people worse at recognising false comment”.

What about the impact of partisan media? Andrew Guess, Pablo Barbera, Simon Munzert and JungHwan Yang (PNAS 17 February 2021) say that “Popular wisdom suggests that the internet plays a major role on influencing people’s attitudes and behaviours related to politics” but while “Greater exposure to partisan views can cause immediate but short-lived increases in website visits and knowledge of recent events….however we find little evidence of direct impact on opinions.” But, consistent with other research the real impact is “a lasting and meaningful decrease in trust in the mainstream media up to one year later.”

Matteo Cinell, Gianmarco De Francisci Morales, Alessandro Galeazzi and Walter Qutrraocciochi of a number of Italian universities (PNAS 15 November 2020) looked at 100 million pieces of content on controversial subjects (eg gun control, vaccination, abortion) from Gab, Facebook. Reddit and Twitter. Their results “show that the aggregation in homophilic clusters of users dominates online dynamics. However, a direct comparison of news consumption on Facebook and Reddit shows higher segmentation on Facebook.” In short the echo chamber is reinforcing the tendency of people to seek out or be attracted to people like them.

If you are concerned that Twitter algorithms make it a right wing plot a paper (PNAS 5 October 2021) by Ferenc Huszar and others found: “Our results reveal a remarkably consistent trend: in six our of seven countries studied, the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left.” It found no evidence, however, that algorithms amplify far-left or far right political groups more than moderate ones.

What about the role of influencers? In the PNAS Journal Club publication (30 July 2021) Amy McDermott looked at a number of papers on the role of influencers and came up with some interesting findings. The people who spread new and controversial ideas may not be high profile but rather that ideas spread fastest among those embedded in tight-knit groups with connections to other tight-knit groups.

And for the good and not so good news Stefano Balietti and others (PNAS 10 November 2021) looked at informal political communication and showed that: “informal discussion with peers can increase trust in democracy and improve understanding of self and others.

“However, these benefits do not often materialise because people tend to shy away from political discussions and because friendship networks rarely expose highly divergent political views.” However, when they tweaked the study methodology they found that “incidental similarities (between people) may cold-start cross-cutting political arguments and increase consensus on divisive topics.”

And what of Australia? Prof. Axel Bruns is a recently announced Australian Laureate Fellow and also Professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society.

His Laureate project starts in February 2022 and “addresses the drivers and dynamics of partisanship and polarisation in online communication. It continues recent work that began with my 2018 book Gatewatching and News Curation: Journalism, Social Media, and the Public Sphere, which in turn sparked the 2019 book Are Filter Bubbles Real? that examined in some more detail whether there was any evidence for the claims that ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’ were increasingly enclosing us all in ideologically pure information environments on digital and social media platforms. (Spoiler: there wasn’t.), he says.”

“At this early stage, I envisage that (we) might cover a number of key dimensions of polarisation: in the journalistic content produced by different news outlets; in the audiences accessing and engaging with such content; in public debates, on social media platforms and elsewhere, about specific current issues; and in the networks of interconnection and interaction on and across social media platforms.

“ We’ll address the comparison between national political and media contexts in the first place by comparing antagonistic Anglo democracies (Australia, the UK, the US) with consensus-based European systems (Germany, Switzerland, Denmark) – but here too there is still some scope to include other contexts.”