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Politics around the world has in recent decades entered an era of political polarization, in which politics appears like a struggle between warring tribes. An interdisciplinary team of sociologists and physicists developed a computational model to analyse this rise in political temperature. They used their model to examine the potential link between social media and polarization and suggest the existence of polarization tipping-points, which can lead to run-away polarization. The results are now published in PLOS ONE.

group of small figures standing on a mobile phone, shouting and with their fists in the air

An interdisciplinary team of sociologists and physicists from the University of Amsterdam, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, and the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden developed a computational model that contributes to deepening our understanding of the dynamics of political polarization, and may help us find ways of avoiding a dangerous rise in societal conflict.

Rising political polarization

Politics around the world have entered an era of unprecedented political polarization. We see this in harshening debates, political fragmentation, and growing difficulty to find political compromise. Such polarization can have dangerous consequences. It can lead to a loss of public trust in governments and institutions, intensifying conflict between groups in society, and even democratic backsliding.

Recent research in political science has linked this political polarization to shifting political identities: disagreement over opinions have become secondary to a process where political identity comes to engulf and align with other social identities. Rather than rational debates over policy disagreements, politics thereby becomes more like a struggle between warring tribes, in which one tribe ‘wins’ and one ‘loses’.

A computational model to examine the societal dynamics of identity and political polarization

The dynamics of this rise in political temperature is the topic of a recent study by an interdisciplinary team of sociologists and physicists. The team constructed a computational model based on psychology research on social identity, which allowed them to examine the societal dynamics of identity and political polarization.

The team used this model to examine a potential link between polarization and social media. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, through their ‘echo chambers and ‘filter bubbles’, are believed to allow us to form groups with like-minded people, avoiding the discomfort of having our views challenged, which would make our opinions more extreme.

Tipping points can lead to run-away political polarization

The new model confirms the link between social media and rising polarization – but throws new light on the underlying reasons. Rather than the political views of individuals becoming more extreme due to lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints, the model suggests that new media technology is part of a larger shift in society. Social media enable us to link up with those similar to us, which can shift the system dynamics, strengthening the role of identity in social and political life.

Examining the dynamics of the model, the team finds so called ‘tipping points’: levels of polarization that can trigger feedback loops leading to run-away political polarization and ‘hysteresis’ effects, in which the polarized state becomes difficult to escape. ‘Just like climate change, political polarization can react in unpredictable and dangerous ways’, explains Petter Törnberg, the lead author of the study.

Breakdown of societal cohesion

The team link their findings to the ideas of Emile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology. ‘More than a hundred years ago, Durkheim described a shift in the social glue that held society together. Modern societies were no longer founded on social cohesion through similarity, common values and beliefs, but instead held together by differences and mutual dependence.’, says Törnberg. ‘Our model suggests that digital media enable us to meet over shared identities, driving us back to a society based on social cohesion through similarity, but which in our large-scale society suggests the emergence of a conflictual patchwork of tribal clusters.’

Background of the study

The work is part of a large EU H2020 project called ODYCCEUS, focused on rising cultural and political conflict. The study was made by an interdisciplinary team of researchers – Petter Törnberg, a sociologist at University of Amsterdam, Sven Banisch, mathematician at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, and Kristian Lindgren and Claes Andersson of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, complexity scientists with a background in physics and life sciences.

Petter Törnberg is currently writing a full-length book on the link between political polarization and social media.

Publication details

Petter Törnberg, Claes Andersson, Kristian Lindgren, Sven Banisch. ‘Modeling the emergence of affective polarization in the social media society’ in PLOS ONE (11 October 2021).

Dr. K.P. (Petter) Törnberg

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

GPIO : Urban Geographies