Canadians polarized, but not because of social media, study finds

Social media would not be blaming the ideological polarization of Canadians, suggests a new report on online democracy in Canada.
The most recent findings come from a study still underway by the Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, called the Digital Democracy Project.

“Many people do not use social media very actively,” said Eric Merkley, a researcher on the project. “People on Twitter are not representative of the general population.”

The study argues that polarization in Canada stems in part from extreme loyalty to political formations and major ideological disparities between Canadian political parties.

In addition, researchers found that many people did not seem to make important distinctions between politicians and their supporters.

“It’s troubling,” says the study, because it suggests that “polarization does not only influence people’s views of parties, but also the way they view ordinary Canadians.” In other words, the opinion they have of each other.

The researchers found that Canadians are “emotionally polarized” – they have negative feelings about others just because they are part of the opposing group.

This perception was based on three indices: the cordiality of the participants in the study vis-à-vis their ideological comrades and their opponents; how much they associate their allies and adversaries with positive and negative traits; and how comfortable they feel to have someone of an opposing ideology as a neighbor, friend or parent.

“Supporters have much colder and more negative feelings towards ideologically opposed people than ideologically close ones,” and also consider the opposing parties to be “more socially distant” , says the study.

The study goes on to say that while Canadians seem to be polarized, it is probably not the use of social media that is causing this divide.

Based on an analysis of the activity of about 50,000 Twitter accounts, project researchers found evidence to support the theory that users tend to create “filter bubbles”. Very few supporters, according to the study, follow news sources from other parties.

But the study suggests that these echo chambers do not extend well beyond Twitter.

Comparing Twitter data with information from the survey, researchers also found that only 16 per cent of Canadians are exposed to highly biased news sources. A tiny fraction – less than one percent – draws more than half of their news from ultra-partisan organs.

The study suggests that most Canadians continue to invest heavily in mainstream news media.

If media consumption is not to blame for polarization, the answer proposed by the study is that “the main driver of polarization seems to be ideology and partisanship in their very nature”.

The study also notes that parties in Canada have changed ideologically over time, and that liberals have become ideologically closer to the New Democratic Party (NDP). Changing ideological distance may also play a role, the study notes.

“This seems to suggest that Canadians are attentive to party positions, extreme or moderate in their own convictions,” said Merkley.

Mr. Merkley and his fellow researchers will monitor the level of emotional polarization throughout the election campaign, and he said “expect change.”

Parties have a role to play in increasing or reducing polarization, according to Merkley.

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