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Polarised Populations

People’s opinions are polarising

The internet has deepened divisions in society and amped up identity politics. Polarising leaders and communities thrive online, where extreme opinions and the loudest voices prevail. Ongoing global crises are further stoking tensions around everything from medical science to racial equality to climate change. As a result, society is fragmenting, and while some people are seeking refuge in unifying messages, others are doubling down on their opinions. In this world, where everyone has something to say and a digital soapbox on which to say it, brands are learning that you can’t please everyone – but creating space to find common ground can help.

TAKING SIDES On issues big and small, people increasingly convey their identity by picking sides, and they expect businesses to do the same. As brands look to take a stance, how can they ensure they don’t miss the mark?

INFLUENCER AGE There are more influencers than ever, and as opinion leaders, they’ve cultivated followings around shared values and identity. What do these figures reveal about who people will listen to in the future?

SEEKING SOLIDARITY A combination of real-world calamities and toxic digital spaces has people seeking unity. How can brands help people to engage thoughtfully in the collective conversation and find the harmony they crave?

Emerging developments

Track how Polarised Populations is manifesting across regions, generations, and sectors.

What's causing it

Understand the cross-industry drivers that have allowed Polarised Populations to grow.

Bipartisan Bubbles

Mainstream social media has compounded existing societal divisions through self-enforcing filter bubbles and algorithmic rabbit holes that lead people further down one path over another. Research shows that a quarter of Americans on either side of the political divide get their news exclusively from ‘partisan news media bubbles’. The situation will only become more extreme as users jump ship for digital channels that better align with their existing views and priorities – whether that’s ‘free speech defenders’ flocking from Twitter to Parler or Britons turning away from the BBC in favour of GB News.

Volatile Reactions

In the face of adversity, people’s emotions lead over logic. For this reason, opinions are quickly formed in heated moments. Many psychological factors are at play in today’s cultural divisions – from people’s negative assumptions about the levels of extremism on opposing sides of the political divide to a susceptibility to be swayed by the crowd and riled up by certain language.

Tough Times

Digital disagreements have become a matter of life and death – from the COVID-19 infodemic and anti-vax movement to the climate crisis and BLM. The pandemic ramped up isolation, anxiety, and vulnerability, and also compounded inequalities between genders, racial groups, and geographic regions. With the stakes raised, doing nothing is no longer an option for businesses. People are demanding more substantial involvement from brands and calling them out when their promises turn out to be lip service. In response, Big Tech took a harsher line on misinformation, while global brands have sought to become true allies in the fight for racial equality.

Exhausted Majority

With President Biden calling for unity and promising to work across party lines, the US is seeking to better cater to the ‘exhausted majority’ – the 90% of Americans surveyed in 2019 who said it was important that the presidential candidate they voted for actively worked toward unifying the country and making it less divisive. Meanwhile, places like Taiwan and France are engaging citizens on contentious topics through initiatives such as the Citizens Assembly on Climate, which seek to find common ground and build policy around it. But while some brands, public figures, and institutions are actively engaging with efforts to mend divisions, others are simply logging off from the toxicity of digital debate and looking for calmer communications in the name of self-care. With the most moderate perspectives absent, the exodus could have the undesired effect of hollowing out the middle ground even more.

Peak

Political polarisation is peaking across the world, but so is the fight against it. Deep-seated divisions, digital platforms, and impending global challenges mean disagreements big and small will continue, but people are pushing back against toxic and unproductive debates. Time will tell whether calls for unity will be met by a growing middle ground or continuing discord, and whether efforts by Big Tech to create safer environments cool tensions or drive people and their opinions elsewhere.

56%

of American adults think cancel culture is a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ big problem, rising to 72% among Republicans

(YouGov, 2020)

6x

In the UK, ‘progressive activists’ and ‘backbone conservatives’ are six times as likely to use social media as the rest of the population

(More in Common, 2020)

58%

of ‘strong liberals’ feel like they can openly express their political opinions, compared to just 23% of conservatives

(Cato Institute, 2020)

Who's driving it

Meet the people and groups most impacted by Polarised Populations.

People with an opinion

People have long articulated their opinions as a way to self-identify – Britons either love or hate Marmite, people stick with either iPhone or Android. But as individuals more openly and passionately voice their opinions on important societal issues, divides have formed around everything from call-out culture to masks to 5G conspiracy theories.

People with conviction

Research suggests that people with extreme opinions are most likely to share them since they’re confident in their convictions. In fact, British members of the two most political ‘tribes’ identified by think tank More in Common are six times more active on social media than the rest of the population and the least likely to agree with the need for compromise. When these opinions clash, they do

Identity influencers

The rise of individualism has created a range of stances that centre on political values, race, and sexuality, among other key signifiers of identity. On social media, identity politics collide with the attention economy, giving rise to a breed of influencers who can earn both power and money by leaning into the things people feel most strongly about – whether that’s inequality or national pride.

Artefacts

Explore how Polarised Populations is playing out in culture and mass media

Brand implications

Get inspired by thought-starters around how to apply Polarised Populations.

TAKE A STAND

As brands are pressured to pick a side, neutrality is rarely acceptable. How can brands ensure they’re backing up their position beyond just providing a statement?

Fact Focused

Polarisation often leads to heated debate guided by emotion rather than logic, so how can brands support rationality in tense environments?

Middle Men

The ‘exhausted majority’ is less likely to speak out than those with extreme opinions. How can brands encourage those in the middle to participate and celebrate the middle ground?

Slow Spaces

People are looking to engage with news and debate in less heated environments. How can technology and media brands support these slower interactions?