Jun 27, 2022

Polarizing Information Will Be One of This Century’s Great Challenges

There are concrete steps that can be made now to improve research on this critical issue.

By Dawid Potgieter and Virginia Cooper

The 21st century explosion of polarizing information—encompassing everything from the spread of conspiracy theories to the propagation of misinformation and disinformation—is a crisis fueled by new and accelerating trends in communications technologies. As the trend continues toward more information being disseminated every day, it becomes increasingly difficult to filter through and distinguish the good from the bad. This could make us more vulnerable to polarizing information over time.

We urgently need more scientific research on how this risk can be mitigated. Indeed, while there is substantial interest in combating polarization in specific sectors, there has been a dearth of research into polarization and polarizing information as a concept. In general, polarization is not a discrete, passing thing; rather, it occurs when two or more people are engaging about two or more messages which are incompatible with each other and those incompatibilities cause some kind of hostility between those people.

In the interest of identifying unifying features of polarizing information and behavior which might cut across categories, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Listening and Learning in a Polarized World initiative began a broad exploration of polarization as a concept. We are less interested in the specific beliefs of any given polarized group than in understanding the factors that caused those people to embrace their positions to begin with and how they might be persuaded to alter their opinions again in the future.

Whereas much research on polarization tends to focus on direct interventions into specific areas, we instead have sought to understand the science behind polarization and how it impacts human flourishing. Furthermore, we are interested in solutions that essentially help people deal with large volumes of polarizing information rather than solutions that constrain freedoms. After a broad survey of the space, we realized that research in this area was needed even more urgently than we thought. 

To begin to focus our research priorities, we have identified five key process related challenges related to how polarization research is conducted:

1. The study of polarization might need to become a crisis discipline: Today we speak about climate change as an existential crisis. The topic is treated as one with not just moral urgency, but with real world consequences for failure. The propagation of polarizing information and its impact on society should be treated similarly. Failure to understand and intervene against polarization risks setting us up for more future failures in responding to crises in the functioning of democracies, the spread of genocides, global responses to pandemics, and other unforeseen challenges.

2. There are knowledge gaps: Right now, there are many people working in polarizing information and polarization in democracy, but many gaps remain. Because research activities tend to be focused around specific issues—such as vaccines or elections—there are often research areas that are completely overlooked, either because they overlap with multiple issues or are issue independent.

3. Researchers and practitioners don’t talk: There are a lot of people interested in polarizing information and polarization. There are many research centers that study it and many practitioners working on interventions around specific issues, however, they rarely talk. Research rarely translates to implementers in the field, and their experiences are often not shared back to researchers. Paradoxically, key data often does not flow freely.

4. Research networks need to be developed: Part of why researchers and practitioners struggle to share information is that research networks in this field are weak or non-existent in many cases. Researchers need to be connected to practitioners in more structured, sustainable ways. Because many researchers and practitioners work in a vacuum, data and information that could help prove or disprove hypotheses, or improve outcomes, doesn’t necessarily reach the people who need it. At the same time, other efforts are sometimes needlessly duplicated between research centers because they are not aware of each other’s activities.

5. Funding mechanisms are outdated: Current funding structures often create dynamics where researchers are expending their energy essentially fighting each other for resources. In such a resource scarce environment, researchers are less likely to want to collaborate, less likely to want to share their ideas and less likely overall to get funded. Employing funding mechanisms that promote best practices in open science and collaboration could have a substantial positive impact relatively quickly.

This work is just beginning, and we are still in the early stages of building research networks and harvesting proposals for research on polarization. 

Research on the topic will ultimately involve experts from diverse fields ranging from mathematics and physics to policymakers and political scientists. However, in part due to the scale of the issue and its cross-disciplinary nature, now is the time to begin building the funding and support infrastructure for such research even as we are still building a common language to study the topic.

Thanks to modern innovations such as the internet, smart phones, social media and streaming video, polarizing information is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. If we fail to find a way to manage polarizing information, its effects on society will only get worse. Consequently, we must focus our efforts on understanding why it spreads and what factors make people or communities particularly weak or armored against it.