4.3 Misinformation Today: Social & Political Polarization

Sarah Gibbs

Social & Political Polarization

“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

—George Orwell; “Notes on Nationalism” (1945)

That the political situation in Europe in 1945—when Fascist states were being dismantled and the Iron Curtain was descending across the eastern frontier—could bear any similarity to our present socio-political reality may at first be difficult to believe. Nonetheless, the habit of mind that George Orwell describes in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism” has reappeared in the twenty-first century. We live in an age of political polarization, that is, a period in which many people’s views have moved to the extreme right or left of the political spectrum. Adherents view their own side as unquestionably correct and virtuous, and consider believers in the contrary position to be fundamentally different from themselves. They refuse to consider dialogue or compromise with the other side, and may even advocate violence against opponents. Contemporary political discourse is often fundamentally binaric; issues, parties and people are either absolutely good or absolutely bad, and anything done in the service of one’s cause is acceptable.


The mentality Orwell describes effectively destroys civil discourse and leads to political deadlock; parties are unwilling to collaborate in the manner that the legislative process requires. Politically motivated violence becomes more likely because opponents have been thoroughly dehumanized. The condition of political polarization exists in a mutually reinforcing relationship with social media.  Extremist, hyper-partisan content attracts more views, which radicalizes its consumers and causes them to seek out and produce similar content.

Supplemental Video: Facebook and the 2016 Election (https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/fln36fd-soc-2016election/facebook-and-the-2016-election-the-facebook-dilemma/). PBS


The Deep Dive:

Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy: A Former Facebook Insider Explains How the Platform’s Algorithms Polarize Our Society” (5 October 2020)

TED Talk by Yaël Eisenstat, a former CIA Analyst and Facebook staffer