Modeling the emergence of affective polarization in the social media society
Journal article, 2021

Rising political polarization in recent decades has hampered and gridlocked policymaking, as well as weakened trust in democratic institutions. These developments have been linked to the idea that new media technology fosters extreme views and political conflict by facilitating self-segregation into “echo chambers” where opinions are isolated and reinforced. This opinion-centered picture has recently been challenged by an emerging political science literature on “affective polarization”, which suggests that current polarization is better understood as driven by partisanship emerging as a strong social identity. Through this lens, politics has become a question of competing social groups rather than differences in policy position. Contrary to the opinion-centered view, this identity-centered perspective has not been subject to dynamical formal modeling, which generally permits hypotheses about micro-level explanations for macro-level phenomena to be systematically tested and explored. We here propose a formal model that links new information technology to affective polarization via social psychological mechanisms of social identity. Our results suggest that new information technology catalyzes affective polarization by lowering search and interaction costs, which shifts the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces of social identity. We find that the macro-dynamics of social identity is characterized by two stable regimes on the societal level: one fluid regime, in which identities are weak and social connections heterogeneous, and one solid regime in which identities are strong and groups homogeneous. We also find evidence of hysteresis, meaning that a transition into a fragmented state is not readily reversed by again increasing those costs. This suggests that, due to systemic feedback effects, if polarization passes certain tipping points, we may experience run-away political polarization that is highly difficult to reverse.


Petter Törnberg

University of Amsterdam

Claes Andersson

Universita Ca' Foscari Venezia

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Kristian Lindgren

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Sven Banisch

Max Planck Society


1932-6203 (ISSN) 19326203 (eISSN)

Vol. 16 10 October e0258259

Subject Categories

Sociology (excluding Social work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology)

Social Anthropology

Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)





More information

Latest update