Maps of Twitter activity show how political polarization manifests online and why divides are so hard to bridge.
All annotations in context.
American public life has become increasingly ideologically segregated as newspapers have given way to screens. But societies have experienced extremism and fragmentation without the assistance of Silicon Valley for centuries. And the polarization in the US began long ago, with the rise of 24-hour cable news. So just how responsible is the internet for today’s divisions? And are they really as bad as they seem?
The Twitter map below (and the 3D form as well) show the US political landscape. This is color-coded by the kinds of content they share. The final graphic indicates the sources they usually share.
At first, the middle looks quite robust…even though you see the polar ends, and the clear echo chambers. But, a closer analysis shows the middle is not that strong, or interconnected.
However, as the following diagrams will show, the middle is a lot weaker than it looks, and this makes public discourse vulnerable both to extremists at home and to manipulation by outside actors such as Russia.
Instead of trying to force their messages into the mainstream, these adversaries target polarized communities and “embed” fake accounts within them. The false personas engage with real people in those communities to build credibility. Once their influence has been established, they can introduce new viewpoints and amplify divisive and inflammatory narratives that are already circulating. It’s the digital equivalent of moving to an isolated and tight-knit community, using its own language quirks and catering to its obsessions, running for mayor, and then using that position to influence national politics.
An example of this is shown in the maps below.
The first of the two maps in the GIF image below shows the US political spectrum on the eve of the 2016 election. The second map highlights the followers of a 30-something American woman called Jenna Abrams, a following gained with her viral tweets about slavery, segregation, Donald Trump, and Kim Kardashian. Her far-right views endeared her to conservatives, and her entertaining shock tactics won her attention from several mainstream media outlets and got her into public spats with prominent people on Twitter, including a former US ambassador to Russia. Her following in the right-wing Twittersphere enabled her to influence the broader political conversation. In reality, she was one of many fake personas created by the infamous St. Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.
The post goes on to show how these tactics are nothing new. The same patterns were shown in the use of Twitter in the Turkish, Iranian, and Russian elections.