The fragmentations in society on religious and ethnic divisions, educational and cultural differences, and socioeconomic status lay the groundwork for polarization. Once it is planted, the polarization becomes a vicious cycle. When societies polarize over whether ideological differences or inequalities, they become open for manipulation through populist practices. Incumbent and candidate government leaders utilize and deepen the polarization in society to increase their popularity. Such practices lead to the bending of the rules of the democratic game in favor of the populists. Before the political system experiences democratic backsliding as a consequence of populism, the reasons for polarization, and what fuels it must be noticed.
The role of media as a tool of populism cannot be underestimated. As Markus Prior shows the use of broadcast television for the mobilization of the mass public and for feeding the fragmentation and partisan polarization since the 1930s, we still face biased broadcasting by state media or media sources owned by government associate entrepreneurs. The incumbency advantage in state media can be perceived natural. And, the partisanship in traditional media can be justified through akin ideologies, even though the state-business relations, i.e. resource distribution ties, are revealed. These may be the reason why traditional media started to lose popularity in the twenty-first century when also an alternative emerged.
Online broadcasting has become a strong alternative, not just because it constitutes a source of verification because of the variety; but also because of its adaptive composition that gets more and more convenient for its users. For the last three decades, a dramatic increase has taken place in social media usage and reaching to news through it. The development of web 3.0 has provided users customized experience through targeted information and advertisement via artificial intelligence, which has led to more convenience for users and their expanding reliance on it. Yet, the customization has not changed but strengthened the media’s role in the mobilization of the mass public.
A rather recent instance from US politics reveals the connection between polarization and media, and it displays how the increased use of social media sharpened the medium of polarization for the benefit of populist politicians. The data breach in social media revealed millions of people’s profiles for targeted ads for the political campaign during the 2016 US general elections. The data allowed to identify people’s political stands and helped composing political messages, which were manipulative in using the cleavages that have polarized people.
The significant point in this story is that polarization in the US has not just started. Polarization has been in a sharp and steady increase since the 1970s. The bipartisan approach in Congress, Senate, and House regarding national security and foreign policy issues has been weakening over the past forty years. Yet, the polarization, also reflected in society, has become a tool for populism very recently.
During the election campaigns of 2016, Donald Trump has benefited the polarization, and as a populist, turned it into his victory. As Esen and Yardimci-Geyikci argue, Trump’s campaign-style, sharp discourse, and harsh rhetoric against his opponents parallel the fashion of populist leaders of competitive authoritarian regimes. In addition to the dubious campaign advertisement, the fueling of populism can easily lead to the erosion of democratic institutions.
Barber and McCarty show that polarization work in both ways. While the elected officials benefit from the polarization in consolidating their power, their option for divergence from the strict party line vanishes for fear of losing popularity. The media feeds this vicious cycle of polarization. In the US, Republicans choose to get their news from Fox News and Democrats choose to watch MSNBC, making the others’ opinions unheard. While social media has overtaken the traditional media in the last decade, it has not changed the partisan leaning to media sources. As people tend to build echo chambers for themselves in the online platforms where they only hear people and news outlets with similar standpoints as their own, the algorithms of web 3.0 for the customization of users’ feed in the way they enjoy the most silence the dissident voices.
In addition to contributing to societal polarization, social media profiles become easier targets for political manipulation. The breach of Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis firm building profiles for targeted ads, revealed such controversial use of social media. As social media provides a personalized interface and targeted ads through people’s data, the firm used millions of people’s private information in creating the “psychographic targeting” of ads for the campaign of Trump in the 2016 US general elections. Through the data it acquired illegally, the firm led the way for the composing of ads that manipulated people’s thoughts and beliefs in affecting their decision to vote.
On the one hand, Facebook’s role by failing to be
accountable in this case has left the issue of online information sharing in
the dark. And, how the legal enforcement for data protection can be effective
is still problematic. On the other, and more importantly for the aim of being
aware of democratic erosion, the data created and shared by people has become a
powerful political tool as they reflect profiles ready for political divisions.
Having inclusive online profiles can impede targeted polarization. Nevertheless,
we must be vigilant with regards to the cleavages in society and the increasing
fragmentation on social media, which can be abused for populism.
*Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license.
 Markus Prior, Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 Baer, Jay. “Social Media Usage Statistics for 2019 Reveal Surprising Shifts.” Convince &Convert. Accessed April 24, 2020. https://www.convinceandconvert.com/social-media-research/social-media-usage-statistics/.
 Michael J. Barber and Nolan McCarty, “Causes and Consequences of Polarization,” in Negotiating Agreement in Politics, ed. Jane Mansbridge and Cathie Jo Martin (Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 2013), 19–53.
 James M. Lindsay, “Congress and foreign policy: Why the Hill matters,” Political Science Quarterly, 107/4, (1992/3), 607-628.
 Berk Esen and Sebnem Yardimci-Geyikci, “An Alternative Account of the Populist Backlash in the United States: A Perspective from Turkey,” PS – Political Science and Politics, 52/3 (2019): 445–50, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096519000180.
 Barber and Mccarty. 2013.
 Graham-Harrison, Emma, and Carole Cadwalladr. “Revealed: 50 Million Facebook Profiles Harvested for Cambridge Analytica in Major Data Breach.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 17, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election.
 Shapiro, Leslie. “Analysis | Anatomy of a Russian Facebook Ad.” The Washington Post, November 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/business/russian-ads-facebook-anatomy/.
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