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From Connection to Division: How Social Media Platforms Fuel Polarization and Extremism

In the current digital era, social media platforms play a key role by connecting users from all around the world. In 2023, 4.9 billion people used social media worldwide and this number is expected to reach 5.85 billion by 2027. Connecting people worldwide is even more important in a globalised world such as today.

Nevertheless, their business model and the usage of recommendation algorithms create sometimes the opposite effect: the rise of online extremism. With complicated algorithms, besides sharing personal content and connecting people, it also divides and polarises them.

This article will explore the business model of social media platforms, the impacts of algorithms on extremism, and will review a few examples of extremism that emerged with social media.

Inside the Filter Bubble: Polarization in the Age of Social Media

The algorithms of social media platforms are built to increase commitment from users. Since their business model is ad-based, they need to sell your attention to the companies.

Algorithms analyse user data such as the likes, shares, location, and time spent on a particular type of content. This analysis is then used to recommend the most relevant publications to extend the time spent on the application and fit the advertisement according to the users’ tastes.

A filter bubble is the “state of intellectual isolation” due to the algorithm that always suggests contents that confirm users’ beliefs and opinions. Thus, the user tends to think that everyone shares his point of view and lacks exposure to the opposite side opinion.

The filter bubble effect polarizes people by inundating them with only the same type of perspective. During the United States Presidential election in 2016, Facebook was accused of creating an environment for polarisation. The gap between perspectives widened, which impacted the quality of decision-making in a democracy.

The Dynamics of Digital Extremism: Virality on Social Platforms

Virality is the capacity of social media content to be massively shared and spread across the internet, reaching a wide audience in a short amount of time. This phenomenon is powered by algorithms that promote content with the most user engagement.

The contents with an extreme point of view are more likely to become viral, mainly because they produce more engagement from both sides in the comments. Indeed, polemic contents collect interactions while detractors and supporters are debating in the comment section. The algorithm interprets this interaction as a reason to continue to promote the content.

The virality of extreme posts increases the polarisation between online communities. The users are frequently exposed to radical content, that shifts their opinions to the extremes and makes them more likely to engage in debates in the comment section. This polarized environment roots people even more in their beliefs and perspectives, without allowing any intellectual debate.

Social media influencers with their constant race for popularity are the ones on the front line to take profit from algorithms. They use it intentionally or inadvertently to capture the audience’s attention and increase their engagement. They reinforce the beliefs of their followers and become a reason for their detractors to ally with the opposite extreme.

The psychological bias behind this mechanism is the negativity bias. This human psychological weakness is the process when a negative event or emotion has a greater impact on one’s psychological state rather than a positive thing. In other words, since negative emotions affect more the users’ mental state, publishing controversial content that causes anger or fear tends to be more viral and contributes to polarization.

The best example to illustrate virality and extremism is Andrew Tate. He became famous by sharing sexist and homophobic perspectives on society and converted his fans into clients by selling some online formations. His strategy for virality is based on controversies and creating heated debates after his speeches.

Conclusion

In summary, while social media has the power to connect people worldwide, it also creates an environment with rising extremism due to the algorithms and psychological biases. In recent years, many social media have taken this seriously and refined algorithms to prioritize the content’s quality. Policymakers face a trade-off between free speech and online moderation, and it is challenging to find the balance between both.

Many improvements have been made, for example, X (ancient Twitter) allow users to crowd-sourced fact-checking. Indeed, everyone has a role in the fight against online extremism in shaping an inclusive online environment where diverse opinions can coexist. It begins by educating ourselves on the topic and sharing this article with our friends and family.

Ufuk Uslu
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SOURCES (cliquez sur les titres pour en savoir plus)

Few Data about social media

Filter bubble on Facebook

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276067921_Political_science_Exposure_to_ideologically_diverse_news_and_opinion_on_Facebook

Virality and social media extremism

Facebook leaked document

The strategy of Andrew Tate

Y. Benkler, R. Faris, H. Roberts, Network propaganda manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.

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