Archetypes of Polarization on Social Media

Julie Hawke, Digital Peacebuilding Lead at Build Up

We were recently invited to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book on hate speech that we were able to present last month at a webinar with the Media and Peacebuilding Project. We’ll save the chapter-talk (and the hate speech) for another format, but in short, we proposed that we need to understand the links between hate speech and affective polarization to open a wider toolbox of counter-strategies beyond content moderation and advocacy for norms.

We have been using a new theoretical framework to do this in our own programming and social media analysis this past year — what we’re calling the archetypes of polarization on social media. Some of you who have joined recent webinars or events about those projects may have seen this, but we want to share it here with invitations for dialogue and development. First, let us unpack:

1. Polarization

Polarization is generally bifurcated into an issue-based or relationship-based analysis: Issue-based polarization focuses on the ideological distance between parties on policy areas. A relationship or identity-based polarization (how we use it in this framework), is more precisely referred to as affective polarization, meaning the increasing dislike, distrust, and animosity towards those from other parties or groups.

Our definition: Affective polarization is a dynamic process intertwined with conflict escalation, by which a self-reinforcing spiral cooperates to separate ideologies or identity groups into increasingly distanced and aggregated adversaries.

2. Archetypes

Because affective polarization is a process, it is best defined by its dynamics, which we snapshot and present as archetypes. Archetypes are models or patterns of behavior, images, or characters that serve as helpful tools for analysis and conceptualization.

Archetypes refer to recurring imitations of an original, which is a fitting description for the emergent role of social media in the existing patterns of polarization. Affective polarization is a human dynamic, happening offline long before finding new roots online, but as conflict dynamics intersect with the architecture and affordances of social media platforms, recurring patterns and existing fault lines arise to be exacerbated and amplified with the tripartite propellents of identity construction, incentives, and scaled discourse that social media provides (See Puig Laurrari and Morrison, 2021). In this combustion, signals appear as observable behaviors on social media.

We utilize archetypes to show how these online behaviors are undergirded by polarization patterns and dynamics.

3. The framework

Here it is, with the five key archetypes outlined as a wheel. The two central circles are an organization of a range of contributions from social psychology and applied conflict studies to the study of intergroup conflict, namely social identity theory, group polarization, prejudice, and contact theory (Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim 1994; Tajfel and Turner 1979, 1986; Allport, 1954; Pettigrew, 1986; Abu-Nimer, 1999) — and we could go on with the citations.

Archetype 1: Attitudes: Stereotypes, dehumanization, deindividuation, vilification

Definition: Less direct communication between online users leads to less information/knowledge of the other, and biased expectations about the other group increase

Archetype 2: Affiliation: Cohesive aggregate groups

Definition: The accumulation of parties from formerly neutral, adjacent, or cross-cutting positions into a limited number of camps with increasing in-group cohesion

Archetype 3: Interaction: Quality and quantity of communication lines

Definition: The reduction of quantity and deterioration of quality of meaningful communication where interpersonal relationships, lines of communication and everyday interaction that are normal to peaceful engagement are cut off.

Archetype 4: Interests: Coalesced positions and power

Description: As a conflict escalates, specific issues of contention tend to give way to more general, simplified, and unspecified claims accompanied by zero-sum thinking and the active pursuit or justified acceptance of centralized group power and influence.

Archetype 5: Norms: Combative and trust-degrading norms

Description: The formation of new combative norms of interaction that displaces empathy or curiosity and reifies the erosion of trust between people and towards representative institutions.

The outer circle is our addition, cataloging the most salient signals of these archetypes, online behaviors we see in our work conducting social media analysis and interventions with an invite to researchers and other practitioners (that’s you, hopefully) to expand this understanding.

So what?

Like any theoretical framework, we hope this one proves useful in practical application. We used this to framework analysis and design in the recent Digital MAPS project, an approach that recognized that the attention-for-profit platform logic of social media leads to segregated networks and spreadable spectacle, with emotive content rewarded by algorithms and therefore more likely to be viral. To concretise this into an approach to analysis, participants were introduced to a framework for problem analysis that specified the roles of social media as a digital conflict driver that powers affective polarization through influencing identity construction, incentives, and discourse, and maps the induced behaviors of social media users into observable archetypes of polarization within the network public sphere. In conducting the social media mapping, participants found concrete signals in their data that pointed to each of these archetypes of polarization. Where there are other ways to organise the findings of the social media mapping process, we find that this categorization points most directly to how research findings eventually informed the design of pilot projects.

In today’s current and unprecedented phenomenon, global contexts at various levels of conflict now share new mediums and common space: social media platforms. Like our real-world geographies, social media platforms also have governance systems, news and information ecosystems, private interests and profit incentives, and community dynamics that shape public and private spaces for interaction. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms are distinct but interconnected online geographies that we inhabit together, and the experience and manifestations of polarization are universalizing as a result.

This adds new dimensions and questions to the ongoing scholarship and praxis of localization and hybridity in peacebuilding. — Meaning, that where social media is a priority, there is a notable level of commonality in analysis and intervention design, simply based on the architecture and affordances of the platforms.

Regardless of context, digital conflict drivers function on platforms in similar ways, and when engaging with conflict in the digital space, there can be many intervention designs but there is a set menu of intervention acts that are possible on social media. Dependent on each platform, this fixed menu includes a mix of posts, ads, replies, automations, direct messages, network visualizations, etc. Why does this matter? It matters because while differences in form, content, narratives, and audience targets are essential to be designed with cultural and contextual specificity, there is a wide range of possibilities for sharing and exchanging architectures for intervention across contexts. We think this framework can offer one way of facilitating that exchange.

Email us if you you think so too, and want to talk more?

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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Build Up

Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.