How can the center, not the extremes, become better responded to, better liked, shared, more popular, and more profitable for social capital and commercial monetization at the level of the very design of social media and the news media? The answer to this question is surely worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The excerpt from Andrey Mir’s Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization.
Polarization studies are media studies, and media ecology is the discipline that allows the environmental causes behind polarization to be seen.
In ecology, pollution is an outcome, and it is essential to look at the systemic forces producing pollution. In the media environment, fake news is the pollutant, but the systemic force producing the pollution is polarization, and underlying it are media settings. In order to fight against the cause of media pollution one must fight against polarization, not fake news.
A search for solutions that will reduce polarization can be conducted in two areas.
1) Media education: the raising of people’s awareness of how old and new media incite polarization.
2) Media engineering: the search for settings that will encourage news coverage (in the news media) and socialization (on social media) without stimulating polarization.
Media education and, in a narrower sense, media literacy have inherited the classical concepts of education, which were based on the idea of how to use media technologies (writing, books, computers, etc.). This is completely logical when media are seen as instruments. The goal of education was to integrate individuals into the physical and social environment via the use of respective techniques and tools.
No one would teach an individual how to integrate into natural, biological conditions of living; how to breathe, for instance. On the other hand, some techniques of self-control, such as yoga, for example, teach one how to interfere with the natural way of breathing. Some schools of yoga, in a sense, teach how not to breathe.
The digital reality is becoming a natural environment for people resettling there. There is no need to teach anyone how to use social media or the internet, just as there is no need to teach how to breathe. These skills come naturally. Media education must focus on withstanding the power of natural forces. Techniques for control of the digital body should teach users how not to breathe.
When media are an environment, not instruments, and a fully immersive environment, such as the digital one, media education must be anti-environmental. Marshall McLuhan expressed a related idea when he stated in The Gutenberg Galaxy, “Is not the essence of education civil defence against media fallout?” (1962, p. 246).
In the digital reality, media literacy is not about how to use. Digital media literacy should be about how not to use. Media literacy is the ability to mindfully switch between media and, ultimately, to willingly turn off any medium however emotionally attractive and sensory pleasing it may be.
In the physical reality, education mostly meant teaching the operation of material objects, i.e. spatially. In the social reality, operating in time has been growing in significance. The digital reality is purely social; it is space-ignorant and time-biased. In the digital reality, media literacy is time management in the professional occupation and time hygiene in the personal life (with the gradual and accelerating merging of these two).
The first step to finding a cure is recognizing the disease. Media education starts with the awareness of the natural distorting forces of the media environment.
The anti-environmental character of media education means exposing the settings of the environment and attributing them to media, not to humans. What we are dealing with in the digital reality is not people. These are people’s proxies that are processed by media. Media turn living humans into users with certain profiles and types of behavior.
People’s digital copies are the results of two main environmental processes:
1) the embellishing and faking of one’s own personality by themselves for better representation on social media, and
2) the intensities’ signaling and extremes’ amplification in people’s behavior, enforced by social media.
Purified confrontation, animosity and rage are media conditions, not human conditions. Human nature is more complex than that. Confrontation, animosity and rage are extracted and refined from human behavior by the media environment for the media platforms’ better performance. It is a byproduct of the environmental settings aimed at higher user engagement for more efficient commercial targeting. Polarization based on extremes’ amplification is a disservice of social media, which unavoidably, unfortunately, accompanies the greatest service of socialization and self-actualization that people have ever had.
Media polarization leads to the dehumanizing of opponents, which is, actually, a propagandist prerequisite for the physical neutralization of the enemy in conditions of war. Physical neutralization now even has its virtual equivalent in the digital reality. This equivalent has become easily demanded and applied. Technically speaking, polarization ends up in the implicit or explicit calls for the ‘digitally-physical’ neutralization of opponents, as they are not worthy humans. This would have been deemed as a war crime or an example of totalitarian terror in the physical reality, but it has become a daily Two-Minutes-Hate routine on social media, often exercised by educated and polite people who would otherwise never allow themselves to engage in it in real in-person communication. This is, no doubt, a media effect. They do it under the influence of media.
The same is true for the news media: they evolve towards postjournalism because of the change in their business model. Recognizing it, primarily by professionals in the media but also by the audience, will help in understanding the roots of polarization. Environmental awareness does not release actors from responsibility for what they so routinely do, but it helps to see how people are pushed by the environment and that they might deserve some compassion and sometimes even some forgiveness.
By exposing the fact that animosity and polarization are not solely human features but media-environmental effects, media education can rehumanize people: it can reverse the dehumanizing effect of polarization. These are not people from the left or the right that would like to annihilate each other; this is a systemic design that makes people lean to extremes in order for the system to capitalize on polarization. Acknowledgment of these environmental forces and understanding its mechanisms and power will help people avoid the dehumanizing of opponents and tolerate, at least to some degree, the otherness of others on the internet, social media and in the news media.
Increasing the awareness of media polarization may help to cope with its effects, but it will not eliminate its settings. Is it possible to re-engineer the systemic settings of social media and the news media that incite polarization?
In a paradoxical way, digital ochlocracy depends on digital capitalism. These two forms of power have shaped their symbiotic relations in a similar way as representative democracy depended on industrial capitalism, with old media being a communicative platform. Now, digital platforms give the crowds on the right and on the left power that they otherwise would have never had access to; the mass media reinforce and articulate this power into political discourses. In return, the crowds provide platforms and the media with a degree of engagement that allows for monetization. Populism and polarization are structurally embedded into this social-economic symbiosis. This hardware can and must work only with this software.
Is it possible to rearrange the economic and behavioral rewards for media use in such a manner that they incentivize people’s engagement based if not on consensus, then at the very least on tolerance instead of polarization? This is a million-dollar question, literally; though, considering the capitalization of Google and Facebook, it is more like a billion-dollar question.
At first glance, a way to decrease polarization is to bridge the gap, bringing opposites together in order to eliminate misunderstanding, on the assumption that animosity is built on a misunderstanding. “Can we build social-media bridges?” asked de-Wit et al. in their review of studies on polarization. Building bridges, or a cultural space for opposites to meet face to face meaningfully and without rage, looks like a desirable and potentially efficient solution.
Indeed, the negotiating of differences and building consensus out of irreconcilable conflicts is a fundamental need and quality of politics and everyday human communication. A vast arsenal of logical, rhetorical and political tools of negotiation and compromising has been developed by humanity. Rhetoric and the culture of debate are taught or used to be taught in schools and universities.
The issue is that all those frames and tools were linked to physical, predominantly in-person communication. The limits and deterrents of the physical reality made people polite and receptive; or at least their receptiveness remained generally within tolerated levels. The settings of physical communication made the ability to listen to the other side and others’ arguments an advantage in politics and negotiations. Society has learned to disincentivize escalation by immediate negative responses and also by postponed losses. Under such environmental conditions, the bridging of opposites did not harm the public health but increased diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness.
The same was true for the written communication between opposites on the physical carriers – it was linear, delayed, stepwise, and moderated by the rules to levels of desirable compromise or acceptable tolerance.
Physical communication invokes politeness and tolerance, but digital communication does not. Building ‘better’ bridges between opposites will not curtail polarization in the digital environment, where the settings inherently incentivize engagement by response, with extremes getting responded to the best. On the contrary, any common space for the opposites to come into contact will most likely turn this contact into a clash. Left to their own devices, without physical or some other artificial deterrents and inhibitors, opposites in the digital environment will ignite and escalate polarization after any contact.
The fact that the expression of extremes is encouraged in the pursuit of response is only a part of the problem. This is perhaps not even the main problem of digital media polarization. The core problem is that the moderate / middle-ground is disincentivized. Moreover, when polarization achieves the levels of purity testing in the form of the Two Minutes Hate and a subsequent ideological purge, the middle-ground, actually, becomes suppressed. One cannot stay neutral and silent when the highest sacred values are at stake.
Most likely, any attempts to connect the opposites and extremes in the digital world will be fruitless and needless. They will only reinforce what is touched upon and articulated. Perhaps one of the potentially more fruitful searches for depolarization could be in the field of reinforcing the center. If one side of the spectrum thinks the past represents nothing but shame and the other side thinks the past represents nothing but glory, the only way to mitigate polarization is not to bring those sides together but to empower the voice of the center. It is the center who might assume, for example, that the past is much more complex than shame or glory, both of which are, actually, political tools of the present but not conditions of the past.
Anti-polarizing efforts by no means relate to the balancing of the opposites. They relate to silencing the extremes and vocalizing the center. How can the center become better responded to, better liked, shared, more popular, and more profitable for social capital and commercial monetization at the level of the very design of social media and the news media? The answer to this question is surely worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The media settings that work for polarization are known. The service they provide is so convenient, attractive and self-reinforcing that no one can resist them at the systemic level, despite any rational past and future attempts. The question is whether it is possible to find settings that work for moderate and balanced self-actualization that would lean towards the center rather than the extremes?
The task of beneficially reversing malicious environmental forces is titanic, if feasible at all. The practical goal may be to find environmental forces of different effects and use them. For example, in the digital reality, there might be something equivalent to how newsroom autonomy worked in the legacy media – it was able to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of advertising or reader revenue. Theoretically, monopolistic social media platforms could implement this by introducing artificial restraints, similar to the news media, which could afford the balancing domination of newsroom autonomy when they were plentifully paid for by advertising in their Golden Age. The problem is that a media system with a thousand filtering entities is more diverse and less risky, in terms of ideological monopoly, than a media system with two or three monopolistic platforms.
Even a relatively weak factor of reversing polarization would help if it could at least slow down the self-reinforcing surge of polarization. As for the polarizing effect of old media, the spread of awareness regarding their forced descent into postjournalism caused by the decline and reversal of their business model might neutralize at least a part of their polarizing impact.
Ultimately, “How to get rid of polarization?” might be the wrong question. The correct question is more likely to be “How are we going to live with it?”
In The Mechanical Bride (1951), Marshall McLuhan offered a metaphor of escape from a deadly environment that was borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841). The sailor in Poe’s story got sucked into a mile-wide maelstrom. Being captured by the horror, he, nevertheless, realized how wonderful was “a manifestation of God’s power” and “became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself”. Revolving deeper into the vortex, the sailor noticed that some objects descended slower than others. He abandoned the boat and held on to a barrel. The boat, along with his brother, who was paralyzed with horror, went down and was swallowed by the abyss. Sometime after, the vortex disappeared, and the sailor found himself on the surface of the sea, where he was later picked up by a fishing boat.
Thus, the sailor managed to escape the maelstrom by understanding its forces and using the whirlpool’s patterns. Or, as McLuhan put it, the “Sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by co-operating with it. <…> It was this amusement born of his rational detachment as a spectator of his own situation that gave him the thread which led him out of the Labyrinth” (McLuhan, 2005 , p. 18).
Eighteen years later, McLuhan returned to his maelstrom metaphor in the Playboy interview (1969). Answering the question of whether he is “essentially optimistic about the future” amid “the upheavals induced by the new electric technology”, he said:
Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.
More on media engineering to fight polarization:
A Modest Proposal for Elon Musk: Set a 280-character Minimum for Tweets.
Andrey Mir in City Journal, April 26, 2022.
 de-Wit, Lee, Brick, Cameron, and van der Linden, Sander. (2019, January 16). “Are Social Media Driving Political Polarization?” Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_media_driving_political_polarization