SOAS University of London

Impact of social media on political polarisation biggest issue to solve, according to study

18 September 2018

A study on social media hate speech led by Dr Matti Pohjonen in the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS University of London has shown that political polarisation is perhaps a more intractable problem to solve than merely removing aggressive or hateful comments from social media.

The 2015-2016 study, Horizons of Hate: A Comparative Approach to Social Media Hate Speech, was carried out for the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence and funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme.  The study provided an innovative mixed-method research perspective to social media debates in Finland during the so-called refugee crisis in Europe. Since 2015 around 30,000 refugees arrived in Finland – a nearly ten-fold increase from previous years which led to a heated debate in the country about immigration and how refugees should be received.

Bridging ideas from conflict theory, social media analysis and digital ethnography, the study highlighted that the basic concepts of debate by users are not understood in mutually commensurable ways. Dr Pohjonen found that even the sources of information used to produce meaning about critical issues and debates are drifting apart, which has led to more extreme framing of events and themes to the audiences who are already predisposed to react strongly to particular types of information.

Dr Pohjonen said: "What is interesting about researching this topic from a comparative perspective is that when we approach such hateful and aggressive communication outside Western countries, it seems to be framed more in terms of the dynamics of social or political conflict that provoke such speech. I wanted to explore in my research how and if this would apply to the European context as well."

Dr Pohjonen is a lecturer in Global Digital Media at the SOAS University of London. For the past ten years, he has developed critical-comparative research approaches for understanding digital cultures globally. The full report is available online.