Polarization and Peacebuilding on Digital Media (2019)

Posted by Lydia

This is a lightly edited version of a post I originally wrote on Facebook on July 11th, 2019. You can read the summary of my policy briefs on polarization, peacebuilding, and digital media below, or you can skip directly to the two “briefs” (7,000 words each) here: Part 1; and Part 2.

Last year, I did a lot of nonprofit consulting about the impact of digital media on society. I was especially interested in polarization. I also got interested in broader digital media governance issues, and in peacebuilding on digital media. (“Peacebuilding” is a term of art, describing a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace.)

My research has now been distilled in two policy briefs commissioned by the Toda Peace Institute, a Japanese organization. Here are some of the most surprising findings that came out of this research:

• The best research studies we have do not indicate that digital media is increasing polarization. It’s still possible that digital media is driving polarization, but explanations for how it would be doing that are becoming increasingly baroque due to the contradictory evidence.

• Similarly, digital “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” are probably not affecting society the way most people think they are. In fact, there’s so much research debunking these ideas that the Knight Foundation — one of the best-known and best-respected institutions in journalism — recently put out a report whose title was literally, “Avoiding The Echo Chamber About Echo Chambers.” I was surprised to learn this!

• With that said: Polarization is rising across the world, especially in the USA. 

• While digital media may not be driving polarization, it is definitely reflecting polarization. It’s important that we understand and track this because polarization is a warning sign for larger conflict (including violent conflict), and contributes to dysfunction in large-scale institutions like governments.

Since digital media reflects polarization, that means peacebuilding organizations and others who are interested in depolarization can track polarization online — and it may be possible to intervene online. My first policy brief details the current research and open questions about peacebuilding and governance on social media, while the second policy brief details what nonprofit orgs and digital platforms are doing to intervene.

• Even if polarization and echo chambers are probably not being driven by digital media, there’s a lot of clearly documented stuff happening that is Bad (or at least Worth Thinking About).

For example, homophily (i.e. the phenomenon of “birds of a feather flock together”) is clearly happening at scale on digital media, and it would be good to learn more about the broader impact of that phenomenon. Some examples of homophily seem benign, like the asexual community gaining the ability to find each other and form support groups. Other examples may be concerning in mental health-related ways, such as pro-anorexia groups or pro-self-harm groups. Still other examples could have a broader political impact, such as the QAnon phenomenon, where conspiracy theorists have created a sub-community that supports itself via Patreon, and are cross-promoting across other conspiracy theories to create a larger movement.

There is also clearly quite a bit of disinformation circulating — in fact, there seems to be an emerging “global underground disinformation and propaganda trade,” similar to the global arms trade. In this world, there are vendors as well as individuals selling their services. There are also state actors making alliances and training each other — Russia’s Internet Research Agency is rumored to have trained President Duterte in the Philippines on propaganda tactics, for instance.

TLDR: LET’S KEEP THINKING ABOUT IT… while not censoring the internet too much, as that will make everything worse. Here are the policy briefs:

Part 1, “The Current Research” 

Part 2, “Current Strategies and their Discontents” 

(Note: the Toda Peace Institute, which published the briefs, uses British spelling and grammar. Hence spelling “polarization” as “polarisation,” plus other spelling/grammar that may look like mistakes to American readers.)

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