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COVID did not polarize society

13/12/2021

COVID did not polarize society

Division in society. That is what the Dutch government is afraid of. This fear results in COVID measures that aren’t suitable for the exponentially increasing infection numbers and a fast approaching ‘code black’ on hospital’s intensive cares. The debate about a possible introduction of measures for only unvaccinated people was the ultimate call for the fear of polarization. Will this stimulate division between Dutch people? COVID polarized society, as is thought by politicians and by citizens. However, this isn’t entirely true.

Explaining polarization

Polarization can arise from a conflict in beliefs or opinions between groups of people or individuals. This is partially caused by the confirmation bias. People pay more attention to information that confirms their beliefs than to information that contradicts these beliefs. As a result of this selective attention, this information is processed deeper, and subsequently, the existing attitude or belief will be reinforced. When there is a conflict in beliefs, and both parties only seek confirmation of their own opinion, rather than debating and actually listening to the other party, the disagreement between the two parties is getting bigger. Both groups cannot see each other’s perspectives anymore. In society, this process can lead to great division. This can be called polarization.

The danger of polarization

Why is this a problem? Polarization can be a danger to democracy. Important in a democratic society is that the government runs the country while keeping all wishes and needs in mind (as far as possible). However, when in a polarized society, there is always one group that doesn’t agree with new laws, policies, or regulations. People will feel ignored because of their lack of eye for other perspectives, and trust in politicians and governmental organizations will decrease. This can, for example, be an opportunity for fascism to arise.

            Keeping this in mind, politicians being worried about an increasing degree of division in society is a logical consequence. It can, besides, be a comforting thought that the Dutch demissionary cabinet will do everything possible to prevent the country from polarization. However, the argument that COVID is the reason for this division in our society is incorrect.

Vaccinated versus unvaccinated

            The first reason for this argument to be incorrect can be found by looking at the description of polarization as a concept. Polarization can be understood as the process of two existing groups getting increasingly estranged from each other because of a conflict in beliefs, attitudes, norms, or values. In this case, we are talking about the conflict between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The conflict about the COVID measures is fairly new. It didn’t exist before 2020. Likewise, the two groups are two new opposing groups of people. One of the criteria for polarization is that two existing groups are getting estranged from each other. This isn’t the case.

            However, the origin of the two new groups that create division in society can be a call for attention. The fact that this conflict cannot immediately be called polarization, isn’t a reason to be attentive for possible polarization in the future. Another point of nuance can be that the two groups are, in essence, new but are somewhat overlapping with existing groups. Many more unvaccinated people are conservative than progressive. But, ‘vaccinated’ and ‘unvaccinated’ aren’t fixed categories that exactly overlap with these categories and can, therefore, not be described as “two existing groups getting increasingly estranged from each other.”

A consequence of the development of social media: describing the filter bubble

            Another argument that can be held against the argument of corona being the cause of polarization, is that polarization has been increasing for a while now. Since long before the outbreak of COVID. This development can be led back to the introduction of social media. Since the development of social platforms, searching for like-minded people has become much easier. Nowadays, as Eli Pariser describes accurately in his TED Talk (2011), “there has been a lot of bonding, but less bridging”. People talk a lot with like-minded people but contacting people with different norms and beliefs has decreased.

            This is a result of the so-called filter bubble. The filter bubble is a consequence of algorithms used to tailor social media feeds to the user. Only material the users are supposed to like, and like-minded people will be presented at their feeds. Consequently, people are only getting confirmed in their own beliefs and getting convinced of their own truth. If you see arguments for your own point of view all day, why wouldn’t this be the truth? This makes that seeing other perspectives keeps getting harder. As a result, empathizing with someone with contrasting beliefs gets more difficult. Social media and the filter bubble have, thus, opened doors for polarization to occur. So, did COVID initiate polarization in the Netherlands? No, it didn’t.

Political trust and polarization

Furthermore, division in society correlates largely with societal crises. During national or global crises or conflicts, political and governmental trust are, on average, much lower than during better times. A frequent consequence of a low average political trust is people seeking their own arguments rather than listening to what professional information sources tell them about situations. Because of the wide variety of (incorrect) theories about, in this case, COVID, people will have a wide variety of opinions about subjects, and this can lead to disagreement. Division because of the COVID strategy is, thus, a logical consequence of the low trust people have in the government. We do not have to be afraid of irreversible polarization.

COVID is not more than a push in the back of polarization

As can be concluded, the process of a polarizing society started way before the COVID crisis. Corona did not cause polarization to occur. However, it might have accelerated the process. Since the division in society – vaccinated versus unvaccinated – partially overlaps with already existing groups, such as progressive and conservative, the crisis can contribute to polarization.

However, this is not a reason for not taking measures because of the fear of division. One of the characteristics of polarization is that this comes together with an average low trust in politics and governmental organizations. If times are getting better, citizens will be starting to believe information sources again, and people be united more and more.

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