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News Feature: Modeling the power of polarization
Thursday, 2021/09/16 | 07:09:29

M. Mitchell Waldrop; PNAS September 14, 2021 118 (37) e2114484118

With assists from politicians and social media, people are increasingly dividing themselves into social and political factions. Models can hint at how it happens—and maybe offer ways to mitigate it.


Figure: Americans have always been polarized in some ways. But using models, a cadre of researchers is trying to understand why social polarization is on the rise and—perhaps more importantly—what we can do about it. Image credit: Dave Cutler (artist).


Those divisions have been widening of late. But they aren’t nearly as incendiary as social or “affective” polarization, which is about anger, distrust, resentment, tribal identity, and mutual loathing (see Fig. 1). As a team of prominent social scientists warned last year, social polarization in conjunction with legislative gridlock and hyper-partisan media have created an “American sectarianism” that threatens democracy itself.


Researchers are trying to understand why social polarization is on the rise and—perhaps more importantly—what we can do about it. Can we find solutions by focusing on racial anxieties, conspiracy theories, and social media echo chambers that endlessly reinforce a single viewpoint? Or do we also need to look for more fundamental forces at work?


These are the kinds of questions that have brought Yang and a host of other modelers into the long-established field of opinion dynamics: the study of how people’s viewpoints form and change as they interact. From a research perspective, the timing couldn’t be better, says Antonio Sirianni, a postdoc in computational social science at Dartmouth University in Hanover, NH. Thanks to the ever-increasing pace of technological advances, researchers now have the computational power to run complex simulations and models, as well as access to an unprecedented amount of real-world data on political opinion.


Their results to date are intriguing, if incomplete. Researchers have begun to map out some of the ways that geography, psychology, and group dynamics shape polarization. They’re starting to understand why some of the most intense social polarization seems to be driven by relatively small cadres of highly politicized individuals who mainly talk to each other. And researchers found hints that the often-discouraging effort to improve communication across the divide might in fact be the best way forward. They’ve shown that some of the most frequently proposed technical fixes—for example, trying to break up social media echo chambers by tinkering with the algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, and the like—could easily backfire and produce more antagonism, not less.


See more: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/37/e2114484118

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