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A Tale of Extremes: Polarization in the Digital Age

It can be a tense conversation at the dining table or a passive-aggressive message on a family group-chat; talking about politics is never easy, especially if there are opposing views involved. From presidential candidates to protests and new bills, it is always hard to find the middle ground. Many nations around the world face this problem and Colombia is no stranger to this phenomenon. In recent years, polarization around politics has become an issue that negatively affects Colombian society just as much as any other.

It is called political polarization, but what exactly does this mean? According to Robert Talisse, professor at Vanderbilt University, it is a “distance between partisans”. He notes that there are three ways to measure distance in political science: comparing the platforms of parties, assessing each party’s ideological homogeneity, and the emotions of the citizens affiliated with each ideology.


With this in mind, let us look at the Colombian case. Sandra Borda, associate professor at Los Andes University, suggests that there are plenty of factors to consider before calling the South American country polarized. Borda explains that this is a phenomenon in which there is a difference between political attitudes and space created between them shifts towards ideological extremes.


It is no secret among Colombians that parties are in a crisis. By taking the 2018 presidential elections as an example, we can see that there are more than 8 candidates (11 according to Borda) and only 2 who were initially backed by parties. This suggests that the division does not come from their platforms but rather from the ideology, a clear split between left and right.


Let me give you an example. In my family, my parents have always supported right-wing candidates. They supported Álvaro Uribe during his two terms as president and continue to back his party ‘Centro Democrático’. Meanwhile, I do not align with those political beliefs and in their eyes that puts me at the opposite extreme, which is not the case. This is a story that repeats itself among families, friendship groups, colleagues, and throughout social media. The latter has been the preferred environment to lead debates that are often laced with emotions rather that well-reasoned arguments, as noted by Ana Villalba. The conversation on these platforms, and often in national media, does not provide spaces to listen to the other side of the story and often focuses on disqualifying the opposition by use of slurs.


Along with this, the problem of fake news continues and only fuels the deep-rooted differences between people. Videos, audio, altered images, and more have all been used to delegitimize a movement, a politician, a protest, etc. Previously, I have written on why and how we keep believing fake news. There are multiple points of view concerning the relationship that this issue has with polarization. Carlos Rul·Lan, social media manager for the European Parliament in Spain said in a forum that “disinformation is so serious that it affects the democratic quality of a country, since there are times when we do not vote with all the information”. While he is correct, it remains the case that it is not just during elections that misinformation takes its toll on democracy.


For Chilean journalist Percy Peña, social media is the amplifier of the unchecked and trampled with content that reaches audiences and ultimately “increases ideological polarization among digital communities. People decide to believe the information they get or not depending on their convenience bias or by confirmation of pre-existing concepts”. Even if to some, like Mexican journalist Roberto Rock, fake news is a consequence of polarization and social media, he is right to say that “people tend to believe what goes viral”. Let us go back to my family for a moment. We have a group chat with my aunts and uncle and some of my cousins; given that most of them identify with the same ideology there are days when links, images and videos are shared with false information about the other extreme of the political spectrum. This inevitably leads to the discussions and harsh name-calling of those who support the opposition.


This should make us consider another aspect when talking about social media and its role in polarization. This is the concept of the echo chamber - an (often online) space where we interact with people that echo our beliefs. The problem with these is that we are only getting one side, our side, and it works as a “polarization machine” according to Talisse. The Vanderbilt University professor also notes that they “enable individuals to select their information sources and filter out challenging or unfamiliar messages”. Often, any hostile information can be taken as an attack to identity. My father, for example, is an avid Facebook user that is constantly looking at political content from groups he has joined or his contacts. He usually engages in “comment fights” regarding left-wing politicians or protests, and in support of the right-wing president Ivan Duque.


These are just personal examples, but international media around the world have also reported how polarization in Colombia is affecting its society every day. With the national strike nearing its third week, this issue has been more alive than ever, with different ideological points of view everywhere. For politicians, it is better to revive this division than to deal with the actual problems that the nation faces, as noted by Günther Maihold. During the time that the marches have been happening, government officials and right-wing senators have called protesters “vandals” and “terrorists”, while on the other side the government is viewed as lazy and as “murderers”.


So, a question arises - how to diminish polarization and deal with it? What five congressmen and women from different points on the spectrum told CNN in 2018 shows an array of solutions that range from walking a mile in the opposition’s shoes, to reconstructing the social tissue and creating projects that do not align with a particular ideology or party. Nevertheless, three more elements can be added to this list. First, it is necessary to educate ourselves on how to lead a hard discussion around political topics without succumbing to insults and aggressive tones that benefit nobody. Second, it is imperative to learn about news literacy and avoid spreading misleading news while at the same time exploring all information available to use arguments rather than emotions. Finally, breaking the echo chamber by diversifying the content we listen to and where we get it from. Polarization is not a problem that is going to disappear overnight, we have a long way to go and it is up to us to continue to engender changes in our routines that will make a difference.

Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro


Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.