Increasing political polarisation is often attributed to the internet and the dramatic increase in access to sources of information – also known as the new media landscape. Media researcher Peter M.Dahlgren, however, has not seen any sign of this in Sweden. On the contrary, his new thesis shows that the problem is considerably smaller than many fear.
When he began his doctoral project, Peter M.Dahlgren was under the impression that we are becoming increasingly isolated in so-called filter bubbles. He also feared that we are now living in a more polarised society, where more and more people hold extreme views, as we increasingly only obtain our information from news outlets and social media that serve to confirm and strengthen our already-held political opinions.
“But I have been forced to completely re-evaluate my position, because this really doesn’t appear to be the case”, he states several years later, with a copy of his finished thesis Media Echo Chambers on the desk before him.
Limited knowledge of polarisation
His research constitutes an important addition to the otherwise limited scientific knowledge concerning the significance of Sweden’s media development for a feared political polarisation. Above all, it shows that the new media landscape has meant that we receive considerably more information from different directions and from more sources than before. Those who use niche news websites on the internet, for example, also tend to use traditional news media.
However, Peter M.Dahlgren has not been able to find many signs that the breadth of choice in itself should lead to increased polarisation.
“What is actually noticeable is that those who are politically interested and inquisitive obtain their news from both left and right-wing media, and do not necessarily avoid information that is inconsistent with their own attitudes and beliefs. Neither is there much to suggest that their political convictions are influenced by the media content.”
Other mechanisms in addition to the media
He draws the conclusion that polarisation in society is a result of other mechanisms, rather than individuals in the new media landscape having greater opportunities to search for and select their sources of information.
“It could, for example, depend on how we interpret the content, rather than how we actually receive the information to begin with. But confirming this would require more research.”