Canadian polarized, but social media use likely not the culprit: study

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OTTAWA — Social media might not be to blame for Canadians’ ideological polarization, a new report on digital democracy in Canada finds.

The latest findings are from an ongoing effort led by the Public Policy Forum and McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy called the Digital Democracy Project.

“A lot of people don’t use social media very actively,” said Eric Merkley, a researcher on the project. “People on Twitter are not representative of the broader population.”

Instead, the study argues polarization in Canada arises partly from intense party loyalty and how far apart Canada’s political parties are, meaning party positions are an important factor.

Also, researchers found that people did not appear to make meaningful distinctions in their views between politicians from opposing parties and their supporters.

“This is troubling,” the study says, because it suggests “polarization does not just influence people’s opinions about the parties, but also how they view ordinary Canadians.” Each other, in other words.

Researchers found evidence that Canadians are “affectively polarized” — they feel negatively towards other people simply for being part of the opposing group.

That was based on three measures, including the levels of warmth participants in the study feel for their ideological comrades and opponents; how much they associate their allies and opponents with positive and negative traits; and how comfortable they feel with having someone from an opposing ideology as a neighbour, friend or relative.

“Partisans have substantially colder and more negative feelings about ideologically opposed parties, compared to those that are ideologically proximate,” and also see opposed parties as “more socially distant,” the study says.

The study goes on to note that though Canadians do seem to be polarized, it’s probably not our use of social media that is causing the divide.

Based on an analysis of the activity of about 50,000 Twitter accounts, the Digital Democracy Project researchers found evidence supporting the theory that users tend to create “filter bubbles” for themselves. Very few partisans, it found, follow information sources from other parties.

But the study suggests the echo chambers do not extend far beyond Twitter.

By comparing the Twitter data to information gleaned from the survey, researchers also found just 16 per cent of Canadians are exposed to strongly partisan news sources. A tiny fraction — fewer than one per cent — get more than half their news from “partisan-congenial” outlets.

Most Canadians still engage broadly with mainstream news sources, the study suggests.

If media consumption is not to blame for polarization, the answer the study offers instead is that “the biggest driver of polarization seems to be ideology and partisanship themselves.”

Strong partisans have much more intense feelings towards opposing parties than weak partisans, the study finds.

The study also notes parties in Canada have shifted ideologically over time, and in particular the Liberals have become ideologically closer to the NDP. The changing ideological distance might also play a role, the study notes.

“It seems to suggest Canadians are attentive to the positions of the parties, how extreme they are or how moderate they are relative to their own beliefs,” Merkley said.

Merkley and his fellow researchers will be tracking the level of affective polarization throughout the election campaign, and he said he “fully expects there might be changes.”

Because of the role ideological distance plays, parties “have a role in increasing and dampening polarization,” Merkley said.

“If parties choose to stake out more extreme positions, we might see more affective polarization as a result.”

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press