Echo chambers and the rise of polarization: scientific paper proposes a new model that explains online debates

Online social media offer unprecedented freedom and rapidness of interpersonal interactions. Within traditional models of opinion dynamics, such increase in the interaction rate would lead to quickly reaching a consensus. So why are some online discussions across different networks becoming more polarized, raising concerns on their potential impact on the spread of misinformation and on openness of debates?

In “Modeling echo chambers and polarization dynamics in social networks”, a new paper out in Physical Review Letters, an international team of researchers led by ISI Foundation Michele Starnini proposes a model to explain the rise of polarization in online debates and the so-called echo chamber effect, whereby users have their beliefs reinforced via interactions with like-minded peers.

Researchers show that the transition between a global consensus and emerging radicalized states is mostly governed by social influence and by the controversialness of the topic discussed. Users tend to interact with people sharing their views only: when the topic under discussion is more controversial and the consensus gets more unstable, polarization can emerge, driving from moderate initial conditions to extreme opinions. The model adequately reproduces empirical data on polarized debates on Twitter, where more active users tend to show more extreme opinions, and bearers of different opinions get segregated in the network of social interactions.

“Modeling echo chambers and polarization dynamics in social networks”, Fabian Baumann, Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Igor M. Sokolov, and Michele Starnini. Physical Review Letters, 27th January 2020. Link