Symmetrical Polarization or Asymmetrical Propaganda?

Boston Review has the best article about politics I’ve read in a long time: “Polarization or Propaganda?” It was written by C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Here’s the beginning:

I would like to stage a fight between two different accounts of the current political landscape—what’s been called the “post-truth” era, the infodemic, the end of democracy, or perhaps most accurately, the total shitshow of the now.

According to one oft-told story, what’s going on is systemic polarization. Our once-peaceful society has been riven into polarized camps. Extremism and political separation are the core problems, and the fix is something like reconnection, intermingling, and friendship across party lines. (The sound of this story is somebody issuing a plea for civility “in these divisive times.”)

According to a very different story, what’s going on is propaganda. Certain bad actors are generating false and misleading information for political purposes. To fix it, we need to fight those bad actors.

These are two different accounts of our current political landscape: polarization and propaganda. Which is the best explanation?

Systemic polarization, as it is usually told, is a basically symmetrical story. Polarization arises from a social dynamic that afflicts almost everybody. The social forces at play—social mobility, online media bubbles, algorithmic filtering—are pervasive, and their effect is nearly universal. Like-minded individuals naturally clump together and end up boosting each others’ confidence unreasonably. Conservatives and progressives are approximately as vulnerable and approximately as blameworthy.

On the other hand, the propaganda story is usually told asymmetrically: one side is stuck in the propaganda machine, the other side fighting against it. It is certainly possible to tell the propaganda story about both sides, but symmetry isn’t baked into its core.

Nguyen compares two books that present the opposing views. The first is Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse, a professor at Vanderbilt. He argues that “our current political rift . . . arises from the profound mutual disrespect between the two sides”:

The fix is to . . . find our way back to respecting the other side . . . We need to see our political opponents as holding their values sincerely. . . . And that involves realizing that group polarization, and other rationality-undermining effects, don’t just affect the other side. We, too, are the products of group polarization. Our own political confidence, too, is significantly irrational and unsupported. . . .

Once we have repaired our tendency to utterly dismiss the other side, we should engage in non-political cooperative projects with them: picking up litter together, teaching somebody to read at the library, joining a bowling league. We need to engage in parts of life where politics is simply not part of the picture . . .

The other book is Network Propaganda by three authors associated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (their book is available for free online). They tell a very different story:

. . . A host of factors went into creating the political landscape around the [2016 election], but the dominant factor was propaganda. For these authors, propaganda means the intentional spread of false or misleading information for the sake of political power. . . . The prime movers in [their] story are Fox News, Breitbart, and their funders and allies among the political elite.

A key element of this account is an effect the authors call the “propaganda feedback loop.” Inside the loop, media outlets stop trying to present truths and to fact-check their fellow outlets. Instead, these outlets are out to confirm their followers’ worldview. And the more time they spend in the loop, the more these followers get used to the experience of constant confirmation and grow intolerant of any challenges to their belief system. . . . Communication becomes more about reinforcing agreement and shared identity than about finding the truth. . . .

At the heart of the analysis is a careful, empirical study of . . . the media consumption environment around the 2016 election, including the network structure of Twitter and Facebook activity. The basic structure of the rightwing media ecosystem, the authors say, was completely different from that of the rest of the media ecosystem. The right-wing network—centered around Fox News and Breitbart—exhibited all the features of a propaganda loop. It excluded members that conformed to standard norms of objective journalism. False and misleading claims could (and did) circulate and get amplified, without criticism from anywhere else in the trusted network.

The rest of the media ecosystem exhibited a very different dynamic—what the authors call a “reality check dynamic.” In this setting, media outlets are incentivized to check up on each other . . . Outlets are thus encouraged to aim for factually accurate reporting and police failures in accuracy.

According to the authors, this subset of the media constituted a single, large, interconnected network, which included mainstream, centrist media outlets, traditional liberal outlets, and more radically left-leaning online-native sites, from ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times to the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Occupy Democrats. Despite the relative political diversity of this network, its various members treated themselves as beholden to one another. That is, a fact check from a more left-leaning outlet like Mother Jones would be treated seriously by a politically centrist, mainstream outlet like ABC News, and vice versa. And the typical user of this network, no matter where they were on the political spectrum, treated the whole network as interconnected—reading across the network, and taking seriously fact checks from sources across it.

Professor Nguyen’s article is 5,000 words long (all of which is worth reading). To make a long story short, he concludes that the evidence favors the right-wing propaganda explanation, not the “living separate lives” one:

Of course, you might think this whole discussion is quite self-serving. . . . I am a typical lefty—so maybe this is all just motivated reasoning. I’m giving just the kind of self-serving argument that people on the left would give to justify their beliefs. And perhaps I am drawn to such an argument precisely because I have already been brainwashed, my whole life spent in a like-minded enclave of lefty academics.

Talisse makes exactly such an accusation. He says that we tend to think group polarization affects the other side, but not us; we tend to “disregard our own vulnerability to the phenomenon.” But this disregard, he says, is itself the result of group polarization. If this view is right, all are guilty of irrational confidence, and we should all do a substantial amount of self-discrediting.

What Talisse misses is that this sort of argument applies equally to all comers. Motivated reasoning isn’t just for extremists and radicals: the worry applies just as well to those who might call for civility, preach for moderation, and disdain extremes. Group polarization can beset any enclave at any place on the political spectrum, and motivated reasoning can affect those who love civility and moderation just as well as it can affect the extremists. The temptation to accept a Talisse-style view of symmetrical group polarization could itself be a result of group polarization—one arising in a body of like-minded centrists who would love to believe that the real problem was in all those irrational, polarized extremists. In fact, [the authors of Network Propaganda] make such an accusation:

As we have repeatedly seen . . . the prominent outlets on the left and center simply do not exhibit a parallel structure, content, or vehement outrage that we observe on the right. These facts are as inconvenient to academics seeking a nonpartisan, neutral diagnosis of what is happening to us as they are to professional journalists who are institutionally committed to describe the game in a nonpartisan way. . . . But the facts we observe do not lend themselves to a natural, “both sides at fault” analysis.

This is not to dismiss either position out of hand. The point is that the position of advocating for moderation, civility, and civic friendship does not magically rise above the fray, rendering itself, by its peaceable face, immune to debunking arguments and accusations of motivated reasoning. We can point out that Network Propaganda is comforting to liberals and leftists, but we should also point out that Overdoing Democracy is comforting to centrists—to those wary of radical change, who long for the civility of a bygone era. Neutrality doesn’t give you a free pass from accusations of motivated reasoning.


The idea that polarization is the basic problem, not millions of our fellow citizens being under the influence of asymmetrical, right-wing propaganda, has always seemed like putting the cart before the horse. The propaganda explains the polarization, not the other way around. If living separate lives in separate environments was the key factor, the amount of propaganda on both sides would be comparable. But there is nothing on the left like the right-wing media bubble and its disregard for truth. Reactionaries respond by claiming that all other media outlets from Mother Jones to CBS News to the news pages of The Wall Street Journal, i.e. every purveyor of news and opinion that doesn’t support the Republican Party line, are the same. It’s nonsense.

As the Democratic Party has remained a standard, center-left party for decades, the Republican Party has morphed into a radical, right-wing outlier. That’s not because Americans don’t spend enough time together at PTA meetings or their local diners. It’s because one side has been riding a wave of bullshit for the past thirty years, and there’s no sign it’s slowing down.

By the way, Fox News celebrated its 19th anniversary this year with the following statement:

We are extremely proud that viewers have consistently tuned in to our slate of original programming for nearly two decades, choosing Fox News as their destination for not only breaking news coverage, but insightful analysis from a diversity of viewpoints.

Demonstrating the diversity on offer, the statement was followed by a picture of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.