Did Social Media Polarise Society in the Aftermath of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Attacks?

October 21, 2019        Reading Time: 4 minutes

Reading Time: 4 min read

Image Credits: Charles PH/Unsplash

Sandunika Hasangani*

Radicalisation, terrorism, and ideological polarisation were at the forefront of public and academic discussions in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday bombings. Social media was one of the scapegoats and there is a perceived connection between increased social media consumption, radicalisation and ideological polarisation. Does the consumption of social media exacerbate socio-political divisions? This LKI blog briefly reviews research findings on the relationship between the consumption of social media and its impact on social polarisation, and traces some implications for Sri Lanka. 

Defining Social Polarisation

The notion of social/ideological polarisation is linked to the idea of growing homogeneity in societies, not only in the political views of people but also in their way of life. In other words, people tend to cluster in communities of like-mindedness and the result is growing intolerance toward differences,1 which could be political, or socio-cultural. However, social polarisation here does not necessarily mean a purely policy-based division, rather it refers to the mass polarisation of societies, related to the concept of social distance, having negative sentiments toward the opposing ideological group.2 Mass ideological polarisation is often considered a threat to the healthy functioning of a democracy, and one of the most imperative consequences is the loss of diversity of opinions and arguments.3 Previous studies have found that groups of like-minded people often grow more extreme toward the average views of the majority.4 As observed during the 2016 US presidential election, people in these extremely homogenous groups even tend to ignore facts that would prove their arguments wrong and have increasingly hostile sentiments towards people on the other side of the political spectrum.5

Does Social Media Cause Social/Ideological Polarisation? 

Our opinions are mostly shaped by the messages delivered through television, radio, newspapers, and more recently via online platforms including social media. Media studies scholars widely use the term ‘agenda-setting,’ which refers to the public ‘agenda-setting’ capacity of the traditional media, where news media has the power to select what to disseminate to the public. In the face of new media, with the diversity of internet-based information channels and the ability of the users to be selective and customise their exposure to issues, ‘agenda-setting’ theory is somewhat challenged. Yet, the presence of proprietary algorithms intending to customise and personalise the user’s online experience places the user in a bubble, presenting contents similar to what he or she prefers or has consumed before. The algorithmic curation on social media (and also other online platforms) decide our online experience, and creates a ‘filter bubble’ of content that decreases the likelihood of encountering ideologically cross-cutting news content.

Are there real-life repercussions of the use of proprietary algorithms by social media and do those algorithms increase polarisation? Recent studies have identified the presence of ideological and partisan echo chambers in Twitter discussions,6 and in Facebook groups and pages.7 Another study conducted in 2017 concludes that customisability technology increased ideologically driven selective exposure and the likelihood of filter bubbles in the modern media landscape.8 Having identified the importance and the social impact of this phenomenon, The Guardian in the UK recently introduced a segment called ‘Burst your bubble,’9 presenting its readers with five conservative articles each week. 

Implications for Sri Lanka: Requires Data, Rather than Speculation

It is widely believed in Sri Lanka that social media incites hate speech, and weaponisation of social media exacerbates socio-political divisions. In fact, a temporary social media block was imposed to mitigate hate speech following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. Yet, many of such conclusions are mainly speculative with poor empirical base. Despite the seven million internet users, approximately 5.5 million Facebook accounts,10 increased mobile broadband subscriptions (over 5.7 million as of December 2018),11 and being the cheapest broadband provider in Asia,12 the link between the consumption of social media and how that leads to social/ideological polarisation in Sri Lanka has not been empirically studied. 

As the draft National Digital Policy of Sri Lanka aims to make 70% of the population regular users of the internet by 2025,13 more attention is necessary to measure the real impact of internet usage on social/ideological polarisation. A recent digital-ethnographic study qualitatively elaborates how nationalist materials on Facebook shapes the worldviews of Sri Lankan youth.14 A few other studies are dealing with related issues, such as hate speech, misinformation, post-war social media campaigns and activism,15 but ideological polarisation is poorly researched in the Sri Lankan context and we still lack specific, quantified evidence. Sound statistical findings are essential for policymaking purposes. Therefore, the effects of algorithmic curation need to be researched by adopting more empirical and statistical research designs. This is a critical policy issue that needs to be addressed to ensure that Sri Lanka’s attempt to develop a prosperous and harmonious digital economy and society is successful. 

Notes

1Bishop, B. (2008). The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart. New York: Mariner Books.
2Bogardus, ES. (1947). Measurements of personal-group relations. Sociometry. 10(4): 306-311.
3Spohr, D. (2017). Fake news and the Ideological Polarization: Filter Bubbles and selective Exposure on Social Media. Business Information Review. 34(3): 150-160.
4Sunstein, C. (2003). Why societies need dissent. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
5
Gentzkow, M. (2016). Polarization in 2016. Stanford University. [online] Available at:    https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/PolarizationIn2016.pdf [Accessed 05 October 2019].
6
Barbera, P., Jost T., Naglar, J. & et al. (2015). Tweeting from left to right: Is online political communication is more than an echo chamber? Psychological Science. 26(10):1531-1542.
7
Jacobson, S., Myung, E.,  & Johnson, SL. (2016). Open media or eco chamber: The use of links in audience discussions. Information, Communication & Society. 19(7):875-891
8
Dylko, I., Dolgov, I., Hoffman, W. & et al. (2017). The dark side of technology: an experimental investigation of the influence of customizability technology on online political selective exposure. Computer in Human Behavior 73(C): 181-190.
9
The Guardian. (2017). Burst the Bubble. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/burst-your-bubble [Accessed 05 October 2018].
10
Internet World Stats. (2018). Internet Usage in Asia. [online] Available at: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm [Accessed 08 October 2019].
11
The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka. (2018). Statistics -Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka. [online] Available at:  http://www.trc.gov.lk/images/pdf/statis_q42018.pdf [Accessed 08 October 2019].
12
DailyFT. 2018. Fixed broadband in Sri Lanka cheapest in Asia, second globally: International Survey. [online]  Available at: http://www.ft.lk/front-page/Fixed-broadband-in-Sri-Lanka-cheapest-in-Asia–second-globally–International-survey/44-666310 [Accessed 08 October 2018).
13
Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology. (2019). National Digital Policy for Sri Lanka 2020-2025. [online] Available at: http://www.mdiit.gov.lk/index.php/en/component/jdownloads/send/6-legislation/76-national-digital-policy [Accessed 09 October 2019].
14
Ivarsson, C. (2018). Lion’s Blood: Social Media, Everyday Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Mobilisation among Sinhala-Buddhist Youth. Contemporary South Asia. 27(2): 1–15. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09584935.2018.1528210 [Accessed 08 October 2019].
15
Centre for Policy Alternatives. (2019). Concerns around and challenges arising from Facebook’s communications policy in Sri Lanka. Available at: https://www.cpalanka.org/category/new-media/ [Accessed 09 October 2019].


*Sandunika Hasangani is a Research Fellow at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own views. They are not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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