How Do We Combat Polarization Online?
Written by Helena Puig Larrauri and Maude Morrison
Illustration by Jenna Van Hout
Published June 15, 2020
We recently heard a story from a friend in the USA whose family held two separate Thanksgiving celebrations. There was one dinner for Republicans, and a separate dinner for Democrats. No one from opposing political sides even sat in the same room during this family-centered holiday. Across the United States, there are always jokes about family dynamics during the holidays, but the political climate is pushing things to the next level.
[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
This story of separate dinners is an example of political "polarization" — a word for how behaviors and actions, intended and unintended, drive people with different perspectives further and further apart. Although it can be tempting to blame this on other people’s uncivil behavior (like that uncle who won’t shut up about Congress at Thanksgiving dinner), we believe that the majority of people are not intentionally driving polarization. Rather, polarization is happening to us.
These personal effects are part of a broader dynamic, with effects across the political system. In a highly polarized society, conditions are nearly oppositional to what a thriving democracy needs. In a democracy, free and equal citizens need constructive debate between those with different opinions: Deliberation allows the group to constantly re-negotiate how to live together.
When people are polarized, they often start believing they disagree more than they actually do.
In fact, polarization can affect people’s perception of their disagreements. There’s a phenomenon called “false polarization” that’s documented by social psychologists — and part of this phenomenon is that, when people are polarized, they often start believing they disagree more than they actually do.
Thus, as polarization reaches toxic levels in a society, the polarization itself obstructs solutions. It becomes part of a vicious cycle. The polarized divide grows; people start having a hard time talking through disagreements; people think they disagree more than they actually do; they’re less inclined to talk, or work together, or even be in the same room; and the polarization grows more.
Many conflict theorists believe that, as polarization rises, there’s a point when the underlying conflict becomes “intractable.” This is a term of art within the peacebuilding community: “Intractable” describes a highly polarized conflict that’s doing great harm, yet is hard for the participants to get out of, despite the harm they are suffering.
Intractable conflict can result in war, but the harm starts long before physical violence. When a polarized conflict is growing in a family or a community, or even between two people, relating becomes more difficult. People end up falling out with family members or watching a community break apart. These personal divides are mirrored in society. As trust and good faith declines, it becomes first difficult, then dangerous, for anyone to defend someone on the other side. Eventually, the worlds on opposite sides of the divide start to disagree about basic facts.
Most conflicts, whether between individuals or groups, are not intractable when they arise. Over time, a conflict can be handled in ways that make it more or less likely to escalate into a deep, harmful division.
Research shows that polarization has been on the rise among many countries for decades, and the rise is most marked in the US (one good study is “How Polarised are Citizens?,” published in 2020 by Draca and Schwartz). While this has been happening for a while, we believe it has now reached toxic levels and could become intractable.
The two co-authors of this article work at an organization called Build Up, a global nonprofit that works on digital peacebuilding projects. In one of our projects, the Commons, we seek to reach people who don’t realize polarization is happening to them, or who don’t see the negative consequences of it. Then we equip them with approaches to address polarization at an individual level.
Combating polarization is not asking everyone to agree. A healthy system benefits from the active involvement of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and opinions — so long as we can find respectful ways to understand one another and find solutions together. While difference of opinions are part of polarization, they can exist without polarization.
The Commons is an online intervention. It leverages the potential of technology to combat an issue that is playing out both on- and offline. Through careful targeting, we’ve engaged thousands of people across the US in conversations about hot-button topics on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve seen how this phenomenon affects real people, on all sides of the political divide, and what we can collectively do about it.
Methodology: The Process We’ve Tried For Social Media Depolarization
Our online depolarization project, The Commons, starts by identifying individual users on Facebook and Twitter that are politically active on either side of the US political spectrum. We target these users either with a prompt to conversation (on Twitter), or through a geographically targeted post (on Facebook).
On Twitter, for example, we ask: “Why is it difficult to have constructive conversations about #immigration?” On Facebook, we run ads like: “Guns are a really hard thing to talk about in America. I want to hear from you — what do you think the 'other side' isn't understanding about it? What would you say to a loved one to help them understand your opinion on gun rights?”
People who respond to our prompts then engage in conversation with one of our trained facilitators on the post thread. Facilitators aim to provide users with the experience of a constructive conversation about potentially divisive issues. When a conversation leads to positive engagement, the facilitator will then recommend resources to help anyone on the thread take further action towards depolarizing conversations online and offline.
In identifying our target users, we are not seeking influencers or celebrities. Nor do we seek those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. We focus on talking to people who follow influential political conversations through hashtags (on Twitter), or those in politically polarized geographies (Facebook). Our intervention is designed to reach average citizens who are engaged in political conversation online and potentially unaware that polarization is happening to them.
Our facilitators are key to this project. Facilitators were originally recruited through our personal and professional networks. They span the USA and bring diverse ideologies and backgrounds. In our pilot version of the Commons, our facilitation team was constantly learning and iterating on their conversation strategies; sharing what worked and what didn't; problem-solving together; and leaning on each other when conversations got difficult. Over the course of 8 months in 2019, we exposed approximately 500,000 people to initial reflection prompts on Twitter or Facebook. Building on these prompts, facilitators had 2,122 conversations, at an average length of six to seven replies back and forth. 991 people then accessed resources for further action recommended by our facilitators.
Beyond these numbers, we now have a playbook for targeting, content, and conversation strategies on both Twitter and Facebook that can be replicated and scaled. Here are several key elements of this playbook:
1/ Reach people who don’t realize this is happening to them, or don’t understand the ways they are participating in polarized dynamics
Over the last few years, we’ve seen many initiatives that leverage social media to encourage constructive dialogue online. However, many of these initiatives reach very few people, most of whom are already predisposed to depolarized behaviors. For example, Facebook has experimented with filters that users can add to their Newsfeed to see articles from the other side of the political spectrum. These filters are wonderful, but they’re only used by those who recognize that polarization is happening to them (and who already think it’s a problem).
In contrast, with our intervention, we aim to help individuals recognize the impact of polarization on themselves, and give them concrete approaches to address it. As one facilitator put it, “For those I engaged with online that were positively impacted, I’d say that the impact is largely that they have polarization on their radar and understand that there is something they individually can do to combat the phenomenon.”
Posts that made the reader feel heard, first and foremost, were most likely to solicit an engagement. One of our facilitators says, “A lot of people will be like, ‘Wow, I have never had anybody listen to me or ask me these questions or want to hear my side.’”
2/ Create spaces of listening
Reflections from our facilitators suggest that creating an opportunity for listening was highly valued by participants, and was recognized as a rare break from the norms of social media conversation. Posts that made the reader feel heard, first and foremost, were most likely to solicit an engagement. One of our facilitators says, “A lot of people will be like, ‘Wow, I have never had anybody listen to me or ask me these questions or want to hear my side.’”
This is particularly true on Facebook, where the nature of group conversations often breeds position-taking. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that some research indicates that digital media does not increase polarization in the US. According to a well-thought-out 2017 study titled “Greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarisation among US demographic groups” by Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro, polarization is going up faster among people who don’t have access to the internet. However, other research suggests that Facebook specifically may have an impact on polarization in the US — a 2019 study of Facebook usage by Allcott, Gentzkow, et al. found evidence that usage of Facebook increases polarization. We haven’t seen similar studies for other social media products.
3/ Complicate conversations and narratives
Through the Commons, our facilitators explored what it is to have less polarized, more constructive online conversations on divisive topics. They experimented with two techniques: talking about how to have respectful conversations, and modeling respectful conversations through examples.
For the first technique, facilitators open an exchange of ideas around how to have productive discussions across the political spectrum. This often leads to the candidate sharing how the political divide has affected their relationships. (For example: “How do you see the issue of #immigration affecting you or your family? Does the topic cause any rifts? I'm looking for different, more personal perspectives on this.”) For the second, facilitators model what a conversation across difference can look like, by opening a sincere exchange of ideas and perspectives. (For example, asking questions in the conversation such as: “What makes you say that?” or: “Yes, I see that point of view. I'm not following you all the way, but I'm very curious about where you're coming from.”) They’re always transparent about their own backgrounds and beliefs: By bringing in personal experience and identity, facilitators can forge more authentic conversations, and they also know transparency is important for overcoming divisive suspicion.
For supplementary strategies, one resource we send facilitators is a 2018 article called “Complicating the Narratives” by a journalist named Amanda Ripley. Ripley encourages her fellow journalists to write depolarizing articles, and she offers specific tactics. Here are two examples:
- Amplify Contradictions — When people double down on seemingly simple positions and insist that their side is “right,” a journalist (or facilitator) can “set a tone for complexity” by reminding them that life is never as coherent as we might assume;
- Widen the Lens — A journalist (or facilitator) can “start a bigger conversation” by pulling back from a specific disagreement to discuss the larger context.
Most importantly, our facilitators recognize that difficult conversations require a commitment to go deep over a long period. Some conversations are sustained over many days, with facilitators experiencing lulls and circling back to re-engage.
All these elements serve one overarching goal: To help people become more skillful in how they express their views and work together. We hope to create interpersonal space for the constructive compromises at the heart of functional communities and good governance, even if full solutions to the underlying conflicts aren’t obvious.
Countries across the world are grappling with polarization and with what it means to create a culture that encourages constructive conversation — a culture with true civility and productive disagreement, rather than position-taking. Against the backdrop of rising populism and the need for society-wide change, our approach through individual conversations may seem a fool’s errand. And yet the impact we’ve begun to see is profound.
As one of our facilitators says: “Even if I think their opinion is wrong, or I don’t understand why they hold a certain opinion, I’ve gained a greater understanding of how people come to believe their opinions. I have also learned that it is possible to have a constructive conversation with people whose views are drastically different, and even sometimes find common ground.”
[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
This was co-written by Helena Puig Laraurri and Maude Morrison, who are respectively the co-founder/director and deputy director of Build Up. It was edited by Lydia Laurenson and lightly fact-checked by our editorial team. Learn more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.