The political polarisation is a part of international trend. Could social psychology have an answer why?
A recent research by the Council of State reviewed the extent and effects of hate speech on the decision making. The results revealed that the political divide has reached a boiling point in Finland.
Around a half of the hate speech messages in Twitter received by politicians were sent out from the same 200 Twitter accounts. These accounts can be divided to two confronting ideological groups and it speaks for the polarisation also in social media.
More than 40 per cent of the decision makers interviewed for the research, told that hate speech and the feeling of being in threat, have decreased the willingness to participate in public debate. Half of the decision makers said the hate speech has affected their ability to trust unfamiliar people. The culminated political confrontation and only the hate speech and the threat of social media “lapidation” themselves, have started to weather the public discussion, which is a fundamental of democracy. The threshold to take part to public debate has increased.
In a research conducted in the US, democrats and republicans were exposed to each other’s political views in social media. It was observed that this set-up increased polarisation.
Another study stated that the polarisation is most present among the population groups, that are using the internet and social media the least. The role of the internet and social media as drivers for polarisation, for now remains somewhat ambiguous and unclear.
A social identity is constructed through finding one’s own group
The polarisation of people to confronting groups is partly explained by collective psychology.
According to the theory of social identity by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, people define themselves by being part of a group. A positive confirmation for one’s membership, sense of belonging and feeling of being better is seeked through comparison on other external groups. These groups are called ingroups and outgroups.
The theory says that people simultaneously want to identify themselves to the relevant ingroups and avoid the not identifiable outgroups. Continuous comparing is central, when determining the ingroups and outgroups. When a person looks at another person, assuming that they are further from similar than they actually are, the other person takes a step towards his own ingroup as a response (and to enforce his own identity) and eventually further from the outgroup that defines the other person. This leads to self-fulfilling and enforcing vicious circle where the outgroup, contrary to one’s own group, is perceived being further than it actually is. And the attitudes keep on getting polarised.
Attitudes are entangled into clusters
A research group led by Jan-Erik Lönnqvist, the professor of social psychology at the University of Helsinki, examined the attitudes of candidates in the municipal elections of 2012 and 2017. The study showed that political attitudes were increasingly polarised. For instance, the True Finns (PerusSuomalaiset) took even more opposing stand towards immigration, while pro-immigration Greens (Vihreät) shifted having more positive attitudes towards immigration and refugees. The refugee crisis of 2015, took an essential timing with relation to this research.
The research indicates that the respective attitudes towards immigration are also related to standings towards the environmental issues. The candidates who had an opposing stand towards immigration, also started to have more negative attitudes towards environmental questions. An interesting notion is made, as the seemingly unrelated political themes start creating closer attitude clusters, identity blocks, that possibly increase the polarisation even more.
The results also show that the internal uniformity within the parties have increased: There are less and less room for diversity inside the parties, and the standpoints of candidates have converged.
Political polarisation is a part of wider international trend
However, the changing form of the traditional right wing – left wing division on financial and political issues into new and tight clusters is not a national phenomenon, but part of a more international trend.
Researches conducted on the reorganisation of political divisions in France and United States point out, that an essential dividing line is perceived in the attitudes towards globalization. A traditional idea about a conflict between the poor and the rich has cooled down. Instead, the conflict between nationalists and globalists has accelerated.
A central difference compared to former is the dispersion of income within the groups: in their respective groups, globalists and nationalist are very heterogeneous in regards to their levels of income. Instead of identifying to the same level of income or socioeconomic status, more important is the feeling or experience about the fellow members having either open or constrained attitude towards globalisation.
In practise, this appears as either positive or negative approach towards immigration, international trade policies and foreign workforce. The heralds show no indications, that these questions would be going anywhere from the political agenda. Vice versa. Adding fuel to the flames of polarisation is not coming to an end, and questions about civilised public discussion and the approach towards hate speech will be on the table for long.
Clusters increase polarisation – but can clusters also be decreasing factors?
According to social psychologists, people often identify themselves by belonging to respective groups. Being a member of only one ingroup is not sufficient for self-categorisation. Maybe the solution for polarisation could be found from the similar ingroups of different people – and from identifying to them? Technological solutions and the continuously developing forms of social media could provide increasingly better ways in finding uniformity and common realities.
When another person is seen a someone easy to identify to, as a member of less polarising ingroup and not only as a member of an outgroup, the threshold for confrontation grows and the ability to find real connections increases.
Illustration: Unto Helo