transfer 26(3) » Rezeptions- und Wirkungsforschung

Polarization by Platform Design? The Role of Social Media Platforms for Affective Polarization in Germany

The extent to which opposing political camps view each other as a disliked out-group – affective polarization (AP) – has been rising across western democracies. This has normatively undesirable consequences, such as increasing discomfort with cross-party friendship or unfavorable hiring decisions towards members of the opposing party. In Germany, climate policy, the refugee debate and COVID-19 restrictions may form the basis for opinion-based AP.

In parallel, the proliferation of social media has led to the concern that AP may be exacerbated by social media use. Recent findings indicate that social media use is related to increased perceptions of political disagreement. The uncivil nature of disagreeable online encounters between political camps may present one mechanism through which social media use enhances AP. By providing unique environments for social interaction and information exposure, distinct social media platforms may differently shape this mechanism, but cross-platform research is scarce. Using social identity theory and intergroup emotion theory as explanatory frameworks, this thesis examined how perceived political disagreement and incivility on different social media platforms may enhance AP.

An online survey was distributed (N = 212) and regression analysis was performed using PROCESS model 14 for mediation with a moderated b-path. Overall time spent using social media per day was entered as a predictor for opinion-based AP, with perceived disagreement as a mediator of the relationship and perceived incivility as a moderator. To explore the unique indirect effect of each platform on AP, minutes per day spent on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were included into the same model as separate predictors.

Overall, social media or individual platform use did not have an indirect effect on AP via perceived political disagreement, conditional on perceived incivility. However, Instagram use was related to heightened perceptions of political disagreement, highlighting its increasing relevance for political communication. As the cross-sectional study design did not permit causal claims and was not representative, possible effects of encountering uncivil disagreements online on AP cannot be negated. In light of the undesirable consequences of AP, a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play on social media in various political contexts remains central.