A graphic image of a woman and a man shouting at each each with megaphones from inside mobile phones.

Anti-social media: Deepening ideological divisions have adversely affected mental and physical health.

The phrase “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” is often attributed to a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

In this story, the head of a mental health institution gives advice to a young patient as a note of caution about the dangers of the outside world.

At a time when increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) generated content has become nearly impossible to distinguish even for the trained eye of experts, we should feel compelled to doubt the remaining “half of what we see” that we have traditionally trusted.

Although disinformation campaigns and the willingness of political and social actors to influence social dynamics have always existed, the emergence of AI tools has made it easier than ever to sow division.

New techniques that allow personalised disinformation and easy access to specific audiences through social media have made it easier than ever to feed people half-baked truths and outright lies, leading to a palpable sense of social and political polarisation among the public.

At a time when distinguishing truth from fallacy is increasingly difficult, a new societal model of trench politics is emerging, where what we choose to believe is dependent on whether it fits our political perspective.

An almost paranoid lack of trust and an unwillingness to compromise by political actors and supporters has dangerous consequences for our ability to maintain democratic coexistence and to compromise on the big issues where consensus is paramount.

How has the changing media landscape transformed political debate?

The presence of misleading information aimed at sowing political division arrived hand-in-hand with the inception of social media platforms.

Nonetheless, the techniques used today are far more refined and targeted than they used to be. A study by the University of Calabria in Italy identified the use of “Spamming Bots”, which all social media users have encounter at some point, as the main culprit in aggravating uncivil discussions and polarisation, particularly in the context of electoral events.

While political division has always been part of our societal reality, a widening ideological rift is emerging enabled by

Cheap, fast, and targeted campaigns can be orchestrated through social media anonymously without scrutiny or repercussions. This has exacerbated the widening ideological rift.

Another key factor in understanding the drivers of misinformation and polarisation is the emerging new media consumption patterns, which have significantly changed in the last two decades. On top of that, 71 per cent prefer social media as their primary source of information.

Meanwhile, those aged 55+ rely heavily on newspapers and television for information, reflecting a fundamental change in where different generations place their trust in order to stay informed.

Has disinformation become more targeted and effective through social media

An overreliance on non-verified outlets and social media posts not only increases the amount of disinformation received, but also exposes users to targeted messaging.

Micro-targeting potential voters based on online behavioural and cookie-compiled data has allowed political campaigns to expose specific audiences to tailored, often inaccurate, information through social media.

Researchers at the London School of Economics have strongly correlated this with a polarising trajectory of moderate and extreme voters.

What has become apparent is the inability of social media platforms to exert sufficient content moderation on their sites to root out misleading information.

For example, big platforms like YouTube were exploited to spread COVID-19 misinformation, bypassing their guidelines and content moderation directives. Although media companies have a fiduciary duty to promote healthy and trustworthy discourse, the task of flagging, contextualising, and eliminating fake news is a gargantuan one.

As such, government intervention is required to establish rules and restrictions on misleading content, while safeguarding freedom of information and global access to platforms.

How does AI fuel disinformation on social media?

Artificially generated content poses unique challenges to moderators and citizens who wish to stay informed. Andrew Ray warns that AI-generated content is becoming the preferred tool for influencing elections, swaying voter preference, and polarising the electorate.

The ability of AI to generate swaths of content and inundate social media platforms, together with the capacity to stylistically emulate traditional, trusted news outlets is a lethal combination.

The spread of AI to generate political discontent and antagonise individuals is making it harder to discern reality and facts.

While the European Union has approved landmark legislation on AI development and content regulation through the Artificial Intelligence Act to address these concerns, experts from the Social Europe Fund suggest the scope of the law and wording of the text can leave room for loopholes.

However, placing the blame for political polarisation squarely on social media and online outlets ignores a fundamental aspect of the problem.

Individuals with fringe or extreme ideas have always existed throughout history. Yet their visibility and influence have been limited since the dissemination of ideas and opinions was controlled by traditional media outlets and other gatekeepers of information.

Prior to the advent of the internet, radical discourses simply lacked a platform, and the spread of false rhetoric and incendiary political statements was limited.

Can we bridge the ideological divide?

While the democratisation of access to information and the creation of free and open platforms has been a net positive for civil liberties, the spread of misinformation, particularly from political figures, creates a permission structure for others to act similarly.

This erodes the deep rooted societal consensus on the importance of being truthful and honest. Addressing social media-driven polarisation without actively educating the public on civic engagement would set up the conditions to trip over the same stone twice.

Increased political differences and confrontation are not inherently bad, as they can promote citizen’s interest and engagement in the political process.

However, it can impede consensus building, erode trust, and prevent people from coming together around the most basic aspects of community life.

Moreover, Timothy Fraser et al identify that the deepening of ideological divisions within society has been shown to adversely affect both mental and physical health.

Political polarisation exploits traditionally non-partisan matters, as seen with the spread of COVID-related misinformation. In the US, almost one-third of conservative voters reported not wanting to get vaccinated, with half of them believing the jabs contained microchips.

The partisan tainting of issues that should be handled by the health authorities compromised the effectiveness of herd immunity.

The right/left polarisation against vaccines was definitely not solely an American concept, as most of Europe experienced the same phenomenon . The COVID-19 vaccination campaign wore out the trust in institutions and exacerbated the distance along ideological lines.

Social media-driven political polarisation promotes an ‘us vs them’ form of identity politics, which aggravates the unwillingness to care for the community, promotes racism, and gives rise to hate speech.

In the United States alone, the political and ideological rift is having concrete consequences. This ranges from a steep rise in political violence, as observed by Rachel Kleinfeld, to an willingness to marry someone from an opposing party or ideology, as noted by Wendy Wang.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that a pernicious and persistent polarisation of society is more likely to erode peaceful coexistence and institutional behaviour. This in turn may incentivise the pursuit of spurious personal gains by political actors.


This article was written by Luca Livolsi, WBS winner of the Council on Business and Society (CoBS) Article Writing Competition. It was originally published in Global Voice magazine. Luca is studying for an Accelerator MBA at Warwick Business School.

The Council on Business and Society is a global partnership of 11 leading business schools spanning six continents with a shared focus on advancing a responsible, ethical, and sustainable approach to business.

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