When it comes to news, America is in a state of ‘pure polarization,’ physicist says

Supporters and opponents of president Donald Trump face off in front of the Ohio state house in this 2017 file photo.
Supporters and opponents of president Donald Trump face off in front of the Ohio state house in this 2017 file photo. AP

Americans are consuming more news than ever — and it’s driving us further and further apart.

That’s according to a new paper from Neil Johnson, a physicist who now runs the University of Miami’s Complexity interdisciplinary group, which is examining collective behavior in a number of fields.

Johnson and his team have found that when it comes to digesting news of any kind, Americans now exist in a state of pure polarization: the size of the extremes of the left and right are now so large that they outnumber those in the middle ground.

As a physicist, Johnson is used to seeing populations sorting into bell curves — think of heights and weights, he says. So one might expect that people would naturally sort into this normal distribution when it comes to ideology.

Not so. It doesn’t even matter whether news is real or fake, let alone left or right: The mere act of absorbing news that everyone else is seeing causes a polarizing effect.

Open carry gun advocates showed up to counter anti-Donald Trump protests outside Gilley's in Dallas, Texas on June 16, 2016.

“Even on issues for which there is no conceivable counter-evidence, a surprisingly large number of people may [take] an ‘anti-crowd’ viewpoint, e.g. the many people who believe the world is flat and attended the 2017 Flat Earth International Conference,” Johnson and his team write. “Even within the community of professional scientists, there is a non-zero ‘anti-crowd’ that are skeptical about global warming.”

What causes this to occur? Johnson’s finding hinges on a basic assumption: that people make decisions based on rewards. Johnson compares his model to what happens when someone makes an investment decision based on a piece of information. If that individual gets a return on her investment, she will continue to assign value to the piece of information, as well as the source itself, until the returns start to dissipate.

Johnson finds that if you assume news consumers act on a piece of information using their own mental rewards system to make a decision like, say, voting, they will naturally polarize. Johnson’s model reproduces what Facebook researchers themselves have observed in their own data in terms of a U-shape showing large sub-populations with beliefs towards the extremes. It’s also confirmation of a 2014 Pew Research Center study that found a strong correlation between political engagement and polarization.

Johnson says that it’s not clear whether the polarization represents a new phenomenon, or whether it’s now just easier to model. But he has a hunch that more Americans now consume news than in the past — and that’s bringing out latent polarization that’s always been there.

“I think it has to do with common information — everybody hears the same news, whereas in the past, it was, ‘Have you seen the news, or read the paper,’” he said. “More people are seeing news that they wouldn’t have seen in the past.”

Is there any sign of hope? Johnson says: Not really — Facebook and other social media companies currently have plans to change their algorithms to draw people together more than before, by connecting people who are friends of friends. While that will draw together a lot of people, t will also likely increase the probability for extremism.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. opines on the question, do moderates still exist in today's political climate.

“It’s like using superglue at home when trying to fix something with many pieces,” he said in a follow-up email. “Some will go toward gluing together what you want, but some spills out and glues together precisely the bits that you don’t want glued and hence strengthened: the extremes.”

So how can we unglue people? Johnson says a way to start would be to somehow assign less value to the news that’s coming out.

“[If] our first connection is through information, that’s the tie that’s got to be broken.”

Neil Johnso_fitted
Dr. Neil Johnson, professor of physics at the University of Miami University of Miami