Coming undone: How echo chambers Balkanised society

Globalisation and social media have speeded-up a social fragmentation process I Copyright: iStock/spfoto
Globalisation and social media have speeded-up a social fragmentation process I Copyright: iStock/spfoto

By Anatol Itten

In October 1925, a stray dog caused the outbreak of a war. A Greek soldier was chasing after a runaway canine and accidentally crossed over the border into Bulgaria, where sentries shot him. This incident culminated in the Greek invasion of Bulgaria, named the War of the Stray Dog.

It wasn't, of course, really the dog's fault. By the time that soldier ran over the border, relations between Greece and Bulgaria had been strained to breaking point due to rivalry over possession of Macedonia. By 1925, tensions were so high that their established diplomatic ties became entirely dysfunctional. An enormous number of moves could have set off the cascading events that followed. It just happened to be a dog.

It's a useful story, because it shows us what happens when communities come to distrust and despise one another. But this process doesn't just occur between nation states. It takes place between different groups within a society as well. That is what we are seeing now, across the West, from Brexit to Trump to Salvini. It is an extremely dangerous process.


When Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone almost 20 years ago, he noticed that traditional communities were declining, and with them people's social capital. There was a marked reduction in the number of people around individuals that they trusted and cooperated with. These communities - neighbourhood initiatives, churches, unions, associations - were pretty healthy bodies. There, people frequently mingled with other people who had significantly different identities.

But these communities went into decline and at the same time a new, ever-accelerating, globalised world rose up. Many people looked for new group memberships to replace the social trust they had lost. And so they regrouped - but not around an existing community organisation. They regrouped around needs. The more needs they shared, the more similar their life situation was, the easier it was for them to trust a new neighbour to become part of their life.

We are now seeing the consequences. We tend to socialise with other groups less and therefore come to more paranoid ideas about what they're like. We assume our opponents believe more extreme things than they really do and find each other to be socially incomprehensible.

This is how we get our very own War of the Stray Dog. Almost a century later, the aftermath of the Brexit vote showed that social division can turn into real action, with historical spikes in harassment and hate crime incidents.

But things are not completely hopeless. Experiments are being run to see how to counter this process, and they are coming to encouraging conclusions.

A team at the weekly DIE ZEIT magazine organised an experiment among its readers at the beginning of the 2017 parliamentary elections in Germany. The newspaper asked them to answer five politically controversial questions and matched respondents based on their opposing views in their own neighbourhood. Over six hundred couples agreed to meet a stranger to debate a controversial topic over a coffee or a beer.

This year the experiment is being repeated with ten other German news outlets and a European-wide roll out is in preparation for the 2019 EU parliament elections.

What will be the outcome of these talks?

Let us imagine a participant. She is meeting someone that she expects to fit in a pre-defined category of 'right-wing voter', because that person answered that borders should be controlled more strictly and thinks that Muslims and non-Muslims do not live well together.

During the conversation she may find out her opponent votes for a right-wing party but does not fit other characteristics she attached to this category. As a result, it is likely that she find more categories that this person 'fits' into (such as parent, rugby fan, cat lover), which overlap with categories that she associates with the in-group. This, in turn, could affect her general outlook on the category of ‘right-wing voters’ and increase associated trust levels.

Alternatively, it could happen that the right-wing voter she meets does not only confirm all predefined characteristics but turns out to also fit other categories she associates with the out-group. In that case, it is highly likely that she becomes deaf on the opponents’ arguments and will simply defend her positions.

It can go either way. These conversations can increase trust levels or decrease them.

It turns out, however, that even the most modest agreement seems to have a quite significant effect. Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on Government at Harvard University recently joined a group of liberal and conservative US intellectuals and activists to spend several days discussing threats to democracy. As he reflected:

"The experience of spending real time talking to people with whom I continue to have deep disagreements about matters of great political importance—people who I may have written off as insincere hacks or uncultured idiots—has been so meaningful. The longer I spoke with them, the more I had to face incontrovertible evidence that some of the people whom I saw as my political enemies a few short years ago turn out to be both thoughtful and morally serious."

One of his conservative opponents, writer David French, said:

"The great virtue of this group is that no one is asked to 'moderate' or compromise their core political convictions. We're simply asked to engage with integrity and civility."

Social psychologist Albert Bandura calls this a 'personal mastery experience'. Participants go through a difficult task and manage it successfully. This reinforces motivations to experience an identical or similar task again, and over time participants acquire and practise skills that help them manage the situation better than before.

In a polarised world, this behaviour is not encouraged. Political interest groups that are based on high loyalty, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), hate it when their members reach out to other groups. There have reportedly been many attempts by local NRA members after school shootings in the USA to bring opposing sides together to discuss how gun control and background checks could be balanced with the right to own a weapon. Practically all of these attempts were shut down, muted or discouraged. Ultimately, the NRA leaders wanted to protect the identity of their club.

We can't let that process continue. Over the last few days, I interviewed some of the most experienced public policy mediators and conflict resolution scholars. I wanted to know how we connect distant social groups. Here are three selected answers:

Lawrence Susskind:

"The key element is the self-interest of the various stakeholders. Everyone is driven by self-interest. Increased polarization still begins with self-interests of stakeholder groups and individuals. Yet, we find all kinds of cross-cultural and transboundary collaborations. Key is the ability to manage joint problem-solving properly."

Susan Podziba:

"We need to be tilling the soil to hear more surprising voices that we can identify with, coming from our opponents. Many people who want to reach out to their rivals are currently scared to displease their constituencies, donors, or followers. If we cannot help these bridging voices to raise and multiply, then we probably need a big crisis that will tear the extreme division apart."

Gerd Junne:

"We probably have to go back to basics, like Sting's song 'The Russians love their children, too'.  And food: there used to be an interesting group of Israeli and Palestine intellectuals who had started 'Eating with the Enemy'. They had drastically diverging political ideas, but loved the same Mediterranean food."

What these statements have in common is their call for ties that link groups across a greater social distance. We can't create this instantly. But you can keep that idea in mind as you go about your day-to-day life and political activity. Otherwise, we risk the complete Balkanisation of our societies and our very own War of the Stray Dog.

Anatol Itten is a co-founder and managing director of the Disrupted Societies Institute in Amsterdam. His book Overcoming Social Division (Routledge/Taylor&Francis) is available from August 14, 2018.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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