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Do the media we consume have an effect on the polarization of society?
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It actually seems that media diet on the internet is more plural. (Foto: camilo jimenez/Unsplash)

26/07/2022
Juan F. Samaniego

In terms of the left-right spectrum, a wider variety of information results in more moderate opinions


In the centre-periphery debate, a more varied media diet reinforces people's opinions by contrasting them with those of others

The news stories we read shape our opinions, and their variety and diversity have a direct influence on the level of polarization and fragmentation of society. However, the relationship between the two factors is complex and less obvious than it might seem at first glance, according to the conclusions in the article "Media Diet and Polarisation: Evidence from Spain", published in the journal South European Society and Politics.

The article describes the work done by Albert Padró-Solanet and Joan Balcells, members of the UOC's Faculty of Law and Political Science and the eGovernance: Electronic Administration and Democracy (GADE) research group. The researchers analysed the relationship between the consumption of information and polarization in Spain between October 2018 and April 2019.

"The aim of the study was to determine whether the consumption of diverse points of view can affect the polarization of public opinion, that is, to what extent being exposed to different perspectives can produce a depolarizing effect, if any," explained Albert Padró-Solanet. "We tried to see whether we had the same affective polarization that is found in other places, such as the United States, where society is fragmented due to people's emotional identification with different ideological groups."

 

The variety of Spain's media diet

The UOC researchers studied the ideological stances and affective assessments of different individuals at different times and analysed their variation. These data were also cross-referenced with an analysis of the media diet of each participant in the study. In addition to measuring the amount of media consumption, the researchers looked at the heterogeneity of the media consumed by the participants in relation to two spectrums: first, the traditional left-right spectrum, and second, a territorial spectrum that registers their position with respect to the centre-periphery or national debate.

"The goal of the study was not to describe the variety of Spain's media diet," said Padró-Solanet. "However, we have observed that people's consumption of internet-based media – as other recent studies also bear out – is not as segmented as we believed. Rather than consumption that clearly seeks to reinforce a given point of view, it actually seems that the media diet on the internet is more plural than we thought or had initially described. People use the internet to access opinions that differ from their own."

In spite of phenomena such as the filter bubble – the state of intellectual isolation that can result from the personalized algorithms of certain websites or platforms that only show what each user wants to see – the study found that people's media diets are more varied on the internet. "Normally, this type of behaviour is related to a moderation of attitudes, but sometimes the decision to come up against different opinions is made in order to question them," he said.

 

Media diet variety and its effect on polarization

Based on various hypotheses, the study attempted to determine how the variety (in terms of both quantity and heterogeneity) of the media consumed influences individual polarization and whether this relationship is maintained or not in periods of great political tension and around highly controversial issues. In doing so, the study, as described in the article, took into account that Spain's media system is highly partisan and politicized.

"Moreover, although in Spain the centre-periphery debate has been on the table for many years, it reached a pivotal point during the period of analysis due to the appearance of extreme right-wing elements and the co-opting of the territorial debate by much of the political spectrum," said Padró-Solanet. Given this context, the team's analysis drew three main conclusions:

  • Variety in the media diet, in terms of both the quantity of media consumed and ideological diversity, has an evident effect on polarization.
  • In terms of the traditional left-right spectrum, a wider variety results in more moderate opinions. That is, exposure to different views leads to depolarization.
  • In the centre-periphery spectrum, the effect is the opposite. A more varied media diet in this case reinforces people's opinions by contrasting them with those of others.

In short, there is a relationship between media consumption and polarization, but it is not always produced in the same way. "The effects of polarization are very clear. Polarization and the growth of extreme right-wing populisms, in Europe and the United States, are resulting in the affective fragmentation of society," said Padró-Solanet. "In Spain, certain populist groups are exploiting this to make electoral gains. That is, in some way, the study reflects the association between information in the media and the growth of extreme right-wing movements."

Source: Albert Padró-Solanet & Joan Balcells (2022). Media Diet and Polarisation: Evidence from Spain, South European Society and Politics, DOI: 10.1080/13608746.2022.2046400.

 

This research supports Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

 

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UOC experts

Photograph of Albert Padró-Solanet Grau

Albert Padró-Solanet Grau

Expert in: Public management and administration.

Knowledge area: Public management and administration.

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Photograph of Joan Balcells Padullés

Joan Balcells Padullés

Lecturer in the Law and Political Science Department
Director of the university master's degree programme in e-Administration and Governance

Expert in: Political theory; democracy.

Knowledge area: Political science.

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