Affective Polarization is the Path to Toxic Political Polarization: A Growing Trend Which Potentially Undermines Democratic Accountability

social media

By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos, Journalist and Correspondent 

A research team from New York University found that Twitter messages that include moral or emotional words are shared about 20 percent more, but only within polarized political camps, not between opposing parties.

Also, according to a new Yale University study published in the journal ‘Science Advances,’ online networks encourage us to express more outrage because doing so online gets more likes and shares than in other interactions. In addition, these rewards had the greatest effect on users linked to politically moderate networks.

The cocktail of anger and rage is quickly becoming the holy grail of political polarization, as individuals have extreme reactions against views that differ from their own. While political differences are a function of any healthy democracy, toxic polarization occurs when those differences begin to pull citizens apart from each other and the societal bonds they share. It can undermine faith in democratic institutions and the freedom of speech.

Easy-to-access digital platforms generally promote the most emotionally attention-grabbing content, which produces a cacophony of politically extreme opinions around us.

As the philosopher Eric Hoffer published in his famous essay “The True Believer,” “All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of minds.”

Affective polarization

Affective polarization often prones strong negative feelings toward other groups, which may lead to hate speech. Audiences are often captured by the emotional tone of speeches, which are strategically pronounced with the aim of grouping individuals towards an ideology dangerously perceived as an identity.

This is also the main cause of the spread of fake news and various types of misinformation. It is a ‘tactic’ used to attack and undermine their opponents with disinformation—whether they truly believe it or not—to create a “sense of identity” and of belonging to their own group, and to be liked by their own “kind.”

Users in social media networks can easily select, edit, and share information with like-minded people. he aim of this interaction is to create ideological trends which will potentially create a large number of followers. As such, polarization is a serious threat to democracy, as it spoils the health of the information ecosystem with fake news and hate speech and causes political turmoil and violence. If left untreated, it may lead to social disintegration and general social instability.

Affective polarization has been described by scholars as the emotional dislike and disgust between members of opposing parties based not on policies but on identity. Whenever something happens, we decide very quickly whether it’s good or bad, if it is blameworthy or punishable, or overall, how bad it is. We form quick and strong opinions which seek to reaffirm the strength of our own identities. Then, we publish our strong opinions in digital networks, which creates certain feedback that we use to reaffirm our identity.

Political polarization

Political polarization is the result of intense affective biased polarization undergone. Groups with specific aims of creating controversy manipulate audiences by spreading strong emotional hate content in order to reinforce division among individuals. Often, these radical views are without adequate evidence. Significant division can undermine confidence in democracy or democratic institutions and lead to toxic political polarization, which occurs when citizens begin to view each other more as enemies than legitimate opposition.

The 6 January 2021 Capitol ‘insurrection’ was the culmination of a political polarization process driven by an enraged media culture and out-of-control social media algorithms that reward extreme emotional responses. This process leads to political trends engaged in emotional responses and a political culture that becomes increasingly divergent between metropolitan voters in urban economic hubs and everyone else—bringing together two contrastive storylines with a common response.

One set of researchers also found that people who hold radical political views on both the left and the right of the political spectrum have less insight into their own performance on a simple unrelated perception task and were slower to learn from their own mistakes. One takeaway from this research is that polarized individuals may simply be worse  at considering evidence contrary to their own views, and are more apt to swiftly disregard the opinions of their opponents. Therefore, political polarization may well be the result of an intricate interaction between a person’s own cognitive makeup and environmental influences.

With the increase in toxic polarization comes the decrease in social identity complexity. Our different group memberships and identities—whether political, racial, or religious—are much more likely to line up and, in the process, we become less tolerant of members of outgroups. Bridging the divide calls us to acknowledge the complexity of our own belief systems and complicate our understandings of other people.


When ideology becomes identity, polarization also becomes toxic which can prevent us from breaking down barriers and humanizing each other. It can also uphold siloes, keeping existing members of movements from voicing different views given the pressure to adhere to group expectations.

An important review of academic research by journalist Thomas Edsall last year highlighted the degree to which the political polarization has increasingly taken on an emotionally negative tone. As Edsall notes, “Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty” and “The building strength of partisan antipathy‘negative partisanship’has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters.”

Patterns of toxic polarization are difficult to break. They resist change and cannot be solved by dialogue alone. Creating community-based structures to work together to complement bridge-building efforts is an essential measure that should be implemented.

Toxic polarization is not sustainable, but more importantly, it is the symptom of large-scale, structural problems. Toxic polarization worsens fears and undermines the hope in human rights and in free dialogue, therefore gradually erasing the foundations of any attempt to democracy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.