What is polarisation and how to respond at the local level?

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The polarisation of society into antagonistic groups who refuse all those they consider as “other” is an increasingly pressing issue. This growing phenomenon, heightened by the rise of social media, poses a challenge to local authorities.

Paris, June 2019 The term “polarisation” is mentioned ever more frequently in the political and intellectual debate on the main trends that shape our Western societies, particularly since the wave of terrorist attacks over the past few years.

It is generally agreed that the polarisation of our societies into antagonistic and increasingly  “enemy” groups corrodes social cohesion and security, which provides a breeding ground for radicalisation. Identifying polarisation in order to reduce it therefore appears an appropriate preventive approach in order to counter early radical trends before they become full-fledged and turn into violence.

Since January 2019, Efus has been leading one of the first European projects on this issue: BRIDGE (Building resilience to reduce polarisation and growing extremism) seeks to raise awareness among local actors and provide them with tools to reduce individual and collective vulnerability to radicalisation on the local level, by mitigating polarisation.

>>Towards a definition of polarisation

Efus and the BRIDGE project experts wrote a positioning paper that explores this notion of polarisation. Here are some of the main insights.

Defining a complex term with as many nuances as polarisation is not easy, especially considering that one of the most extensive causes of polarisation is the oversimplification of reality, leading to a confrontation based on a lack of mutual understanding and de-humanisation of the other.
In addition, polarisation might be seen as a regular state of democratic societies. After all, the notion of democracy presupposes a society characterised by differences and conflicting interests. Yet, the term polarisation, as it is understood in recent academic and political debates, does not refer to political, social, cultural and religious diversity and pluralism as such, but to a growing fragmentation of society into antagonistic collectives perceived as opponents in existential questions over the future of society.
While democracy is built on shared values and principles and, in ideal cases, social bonds, polarisation relates to a social and political fragmentation of society that puts these certitudes and bonds into question. Preventing polarisation does not aim for homogenisation or the levelling of differences; instead, it aims to foster social cohesion and an inclusive “us” reflected in inter-group trust, reciprocity, solidarity, and connectedness.

The BRIDGE partners suggest the following definition of polarisation:

Polarisation as used in some academic literature refers to “the widening of the gap between specific groups of people in terms of their economic or social circumstances and opportunities” (Woodward 1995). In a more recent adaptation of the term, the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) refers to a “process where groups in society become adversaries when there is a sharp psychological division between ‘us and them’. Alienation and hostilities are growing, resulting in a political climate where prejudices, hate speech and even hate crime flourish” (RAN 2017).

>>The importance of social cohesion

Most studies point out the fact that the weakening of social cohesion is a factor of polarisation: when citizens feel they are not listened to or heard, not represented in the institutions and power groups and left behind by the economy, they tend to take refuge in closed-off opinion groups that exclude all those perceived as “others”.

These groups are characterised by an “us and them” or black and white thinking, refusing any otherness (those who do not belong to my gender, ethnic group, political family, religion, etc.). On a fundamental level, social cohesion breaks down when trust disappears and is replaced by fear and anger.

>>Polarisation and radicalisation

It is important to distinguish between polarisation and radicalisation. The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) describes radicalisation as “the process where individuals or factions of these polarised groups grow further towards the acceptance and use of violent extremism and ultimately terrorism.” It concludes, consequently, that polarisation can potentially lead to radicalisation in certain occasions.
Radicalisation and extremism have become the most common terms used to refer to the dynamics by which individuals, groups, and mass opinion are moved to support or participate in political violence. However, while the dynamics of violence can involve radical or extremist ideas and beliefs, the link between these and violent extremist behaviour is not linear, automatic, or one-way. Radicalisation of ideas and actions are not identical. 99% of those with radical ideas never act; not all who hold radical beliefs engage in illegal acts.
But what is clear is that some political groups and parties exploit polarisation to radicalise the political debate and, for some, fuel violence.

>>The impact of social media

The impact of social media in today’s polarisation processes has been fundamental.
In recent years, we have witnessed the role that social networks have played in the polarisation process of modern societies and in the development of far-reaching and consequential events. Furthermore, it has been shown that algorithms developed by technological platforms to personalise the information we receive via navigation data generated by each user have become instruments to control the flow of information and exert an increasing influence on public opinion and on the distribution of information. Although apparently innocuous, the implementation of personalised search algorithms and content selection brings the risk of removing information contrary to a user’s points of view, causing a de facto isolation in our own ideological bubble, known as the echo chamber phenomenon or bubble filter. This isolation polarises us more as a society and drastically reduces the opposition to and confrontation of our ideas.

>>What local authorities can do

Many local governments throughout Europe lack a deep and detailed knowledge of the processes of polarisation in their territory. Research on polarisation and policy strategies to address it are fast developing, yet remain at an early stage. The resulting lack of clarity on definitions and concepts as well as the prevalence, dynamics, impacts and spatial and temporal distribution of such phenomena within a municipality’s or region’s territory is problematic because such information would ensure adequate allocation of resources as well as the development of effective prevention measures. Increasing knowledge and evidence on the topic of polarisation is thus of paramount importance.

In order to do so, Efus recommends that local and regional authorities:

  • conduct local safety audits or surveys on the topic of polarisation making use of adequate methodologies and relying on expert support;
  • routinely review and evaluate existing prevention strategies on the basis of new knowledge and evidence;
  • regularly publish data on polarisation in the territory of the municipality or region, e.g. in an annual report;
  • train local safety practitioners on how to effectively audit and monitor polarisation in their territory.

As part of the BRIDGE project, local polarisation audits are being conducted in 13 European local authorities. Efus will make the feedback from these experiences and the resulting recommendations available to the whole network . It is an important first step to provide local authorities with tools to respond to this multifaceted and complex phenomenon, which is set to become an increasingly important aspect of urban security.

More information on the BRIDGE project