A review and provocation: On polarization and platforms

Daniel Kreiss, Shannon C. McGregor

New Media & Society

Political Processes

(Research summary by Katherine Furl)

Is increasing polarization—the distance between politically meaningful groups in society—inherently bad for democracy? And should all polarization be considered equal? In their New Media & Society article “A review and provocation: On polarization and platforms,” Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor find polarization can strengthen democracy. Many polarization researchers, however, treat all polarization as equally threatening to democracy. Generalizing all polarization as essentially the same and as a fundamental threat to democracy obscures important differences in social locations, identities, and support for democratic norms across social and political groups. Without considering the ways these groups map onto identity—and, through identity, onto unequal systems of power—researchers fail to distinguish forms of polarization that are for or against democracy.  


Kreiss and McGregor find past polarization research has focused primarily on maintaining social cohesion—a baseline level of solidarity—within societies. According to many polarization researchers, a certain level of social cohesion is necessary for democracies to function. When dividing lines are drawn across social groups (what researchers call social polarization) and when social or political groups generally dislike and distrust other groups (what researchers call affective polarization), social cohesion is threatened.  


Kreiss and McGregor note polarization researchers have extensively examined affective polarization across political groups in the United States. Most of these researchers have framed polarization as uniformly threatening democratic norms. Kreiss and McGregor argue that in doing so polarization researchers fail to consider the ways political groups in the United States map onto important social groups and identities. In the United States, for example, polarization is often connected to racialization. Additionally, these researchers effectively ignore the ways these social groups are entrenched in unequal systems of power. Racialized identities in the United States, for example, are inextricably tied to anti-Black racism and to the system of white supremacy on which the country was founded.  


According to Kreiss and McGregor, considering polarization as something that always threatens democracy—particularly in places like the United States that were founded upon inherently unequal systems of power—is in and of itself an undemocratic stance. Regardless of intention, this framing supports a status quo in line with the unequal systems of power at play in these societies. As Kreiss and McGregor put it,  


“Much of the broader polarization literature is framed against a supposedly normatively desirable time of less polarization—one that coincided with the existence of White racial authoritarian states in the US South that both political parties generally upheld...In preeminent veins of polarization scholarship, it is as if researchers looked across the landscape of American history, saw a racial group with 200+years of social, cultural, political, legal, and economic dominance premised on both violence and law, assessed challenges to this by Black people and other people of color, and walked away with the diagnosis that the problem is both sides.” 


So, what can polarization researchers do to account for these worrying blindspots? Kreiss and McGregor put forward several suggestions: 


  1. Researchers should emphasize the role of unequal systems of power—including those tied to racialization as well as to social class, religion, sexuality, and gender—when analyzing polarization. These systems are fundamental to social structures, relationships, and conflicts, so polarization researchers can’t afford to sweep them under the rug without seriously limiting their work. 
  1. Rather than treat polarization as something that always threatens democracy, researchers should instead consider whether certain instances of polarization are tied to anti-democratic or pro-democratic norms. In societies where predominant social norms are often inherently unjust—and thus, inherently anti-democratic—polarization sparked by social justice advocacy can promote democracy rather than hinder it. 
  1. Social media platforms are extremely visible, so it’s easy for researchers and everyday people to find polarization on these platforms. That said, it’s important to remember that polarization rarely, if ever, appears out of thin air on social media. Instead, repeated interactions with similar and different others online and offline promote a process of polarization. While social media platforms can amplify polarization that both promotes and threatens democracy, that polarization is primarily tied to identity—social media platforms are a tool for polarization, rather than its exclusive cause.  


Centering differences in social locations, identities, and their relationships to unequal systems of power in polarization research can help us better understand when polarization has the potential to either help or harm democracies. Just as importantly, doing so minimizes the risks of researchers perpetuating these same unequal systems of power as part of the status quo