What happened?

Online filter bubbles are often blamed for the growing polarization in Western democracies. A recent visualization of the extreme bifurcation on Twitter confirms the existence of online bubbles; the most active, and best-connected, political accounts are on the far right and left, while the middle is relatively silent and dispersed. Moreover, as the analysts argue, these extreme ends are easy targets for (foreign) trolls inserting ideas, narratives or memes and such ideas are likely to trickle down into the mainstream political debate in the middle. Still, this does not necessarily imply that social media is to blame for “real-life” political polarization.

What does this mean?

Strong polarization is widely regarded as a threat to democracies, but simply blaming online platforms does not tell the whole story and does not contribute to a solution either. First, polarized bubbles exist in print, radio and television as well (although these are less extreme than the ones on online platforms). Second, the current wave of polarization predates the rise of social media and, third, those who are most polarized (older demographics) spend relatively little time online. Also, insofar as online media indeed create filter bubbles, the question remains whether they do so actively (i.e. driven by personalization algorithms) or whether they merely enable individuals to find confirmation of their own ideas and communicate exclusively with likeminded people.

What’s next?

Even though online media are not the root cause of polarization, they most probably are an enabling, and amplifying, factor and their impact will grow as they become increasingly important in our information diet. In the meantime, traditional media brands may choose to refrain from polarizing further and maintain their (relatively) neutral image. On the other hand, the more they come to rely on online channels, hence on selective consumers, the more they may be forced to pick sides in societal debates in order to get their clicks.