This is one of the reasons why online was so bad in 2021.

New data shows that the polarization of political discourse on the Internet has remained largely unchanged since the end of 2020. This is probably not surprising if you’ve watched the Internet at all in the last year. But the data also show an underlying pattern in which specific topics, such as abortion and immigration, have taken turns causing controversy. While people were constantly freaking out about politics on the Internet, topics that sparked conversation changed dramatically throughout the year.

Data from a collaborative project between Zignal Labs, a social media analytics platform, and the University of Southern California helps explain why political discourse in 2021 could seem like an endless carousel of outrage.


Zignal and USC have teamed up to create Polarization index, which measures interactions with polarized content on Twitter and calculates a polarization score. Since the index began tracking conversations last year, there have been important political events such as the January 6 uprising, the transition from Trump to the Biden administration, and much of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. All this time, the PI indicator remained practically unchanged.

While Twitter is far from ideal as a broker for broader controversy, online platforms play an extremely important role in shaping political discourse. Social media platforms like Meta (formerly Facebook) have come under the microscope again this year, leading to new doubts about the ethics of these platforms and how they can tackle disinformation, extremism and online hate speech.

There has been a long-standing debate in academia about how to measure polarization, but no clear standard has yet been developed. This index averages polarization scores across 10 political themes – immigration, policing, racial equality, abortion, voting integrity, gun legislation, climate change, minimum wages, COVID-19 vaccines, and health care reform – on a scale of 1 to 100 ( 100 – absolute polarization). The polarization score is calculated by combining the number of news link shares on Twitter with the bias and trustworthiness scores of media sources posting general content, provided that “an unreliable source at either end of the Political Bias Spectrum is more polarizing than the proportion of highly reliable, more focused sources.”

The grouping of media sources by bias and reliability comes from Ad Fontes Media Displacement Chart, an independent news content rating company that determines political views and evaluates reliability based on raw data.

Why was the web so bad this year?

The polarization index started at 85.5 at the end of 2020, which the researchers called the “critical” level. At the beginning of 2021, the result fell by only 3 points and has remained stable since then.

Immigration is currently the most polarized topic measured by the index, followed by policing, racial equality and gun legislation. At the topic level, polarization changes were much more common, and the degrees of polarization seemed to change from topic to topic, keeping the overall score high.

For example, voting integrity was the second most controversial issue in the fourth quarter of 2020, then dropped to sixth place out of 10, and rose again to fifth place in the second half of 2021.

The study, published alongside the Polarization Index, also found that news articles on the most polarized topics were more likely to come from unreliable and right-wing sources. The report says that “engaging with right-wing sources is more likely to lead to an increasingly polarized conversation.”

For example, this is immigration, the most polarized topic: from the end of 2020 to the third quarter of 2021, right-handed sources of medium and low reliability prevailed in the conversation, and the polarization score increased from 84.8. up to 100.3 per year. The same pattern is observed for other highly polarized topics.

What’s ahead

According to Zignal’s research, it is well documented that more extreme content tends to be misleading as well.

Anya Shiffrin, director of the Technology, Media and Communications Program at Columbia University, says: “Much of the misinformation is directed from the top down. It comes from the heads of state, from politicians. ” Shiffrin also attributes the problem to the lack of gatekeepers to control the flow of content. Instead, algorithmic recommendation systems on social media platforms tend to leverage extreme material, which, according to Shiffrin, leads to a more “extreme internet.”

The extreme digital environment has led to dramatic manifestations of violence in the real world this year. Examples of such relationships include: Facebook’s role in post-coup violence in Myanmar and the January 6 uprising in the United States, which was the result of a flurry of misinformation about the election results.

At the request of MIT Technology Review, Zignal conducted an analysis that specifically examined how people interacted with various media over time on electoral credibility and voter integrity. The data shows that interactions with less reliable sources on both the left and right were closest to the January 6 elections and events.

In late 2020, interactions with less reliable right-wing sources, in particular, dominated online conversations about voter integrity. It was also the time when the pollination of voter integrity was at its highest, reaching 95. According to the report, the high level of disagreement caused by the split over voter integrity “led to the January 6 events at the Capitol.”

It is noteworthy that highly reliable right-wing sources account for only 0.017% of the total number of voters on the topic of voter honesty, while highly reliable left-wing sources account for about 36%.

According to Pew Research Research At the end of November 2020, 79% of Trump voters said the 2020 presidential election did not go well, compared with 6% of Biden’s voters.

Another election year is just around the corner, and talk of the health of American democracy is just around the corner. comes to the fore againputting new pressure on social media.

A little cause for optimismHowever, they can be found across the Atlantic. The European Union is considering two major bills in early 2022, called Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Lawled by the French government. The bills are aimed at suppressing the incitement to hatred and the underlying advertising model, which is generally considered one of the most fundamental problems in the fight against the spread of misinformation.

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