Analysis

Poles Apart

Nick Barron

A new book explores why society is coming apart, how communicators can bring people together, and why we often choose not to

Nick Barron talks to Ali Goldsworthy, one of the authors of Poles Apart.

In 2012, Jonah Berger of Wharton Business School set out to answer the question: “What makes content go viral?” He found that “positive content is more viral than negative content,” and observed that, in social networks, people share content that gives them social currency: “The better it makes them look, the more likely they’ll be to pass it on.”

This year, academics from Cambridge and New York identified a very different social media dynamic. On Facebook and Twitter, they discovered, criticism of the “out-group… is the strongest predictor of social media engagement… suggesting that social media may be creating perverse incentives for content expressing out-group animosity.”

Within a decade, dunking on your enemies had become the most popular way to earn social capital.

This is just one way in which polarisation (tribal rivalry) is reshaping the way we relate to one another. Understanding its effects has become an urgent challenge.

Poles Apart’, the new book from our partners at The Depolarization Project, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why people have become so divided and whether they can be brought back together.

Authors Alison Goldsworthy (co-creator of our Networked Age Guide to Communicating in a Polarised World), Laura Osborne and Alexandra Chesterfield have written the definitive exploration of polarisation’s effects.

Poles Apart explores how, at the personal level, polarisation influences the brands we choose, the people we hire and the friendships we form or break. The book also illustrates how, in extremis, polarisation can dissolve the social fabric with alarming speed: In the censorious environments that polarisation produces, mutual suspicion can quickly boil over into rage, wrecking institutions and tearing countries apart.

Among the case studies the authors refer to are many in which communicators have stoked division. For example, a soap opera in the Democratic Republic of Congo, designed to improve community cohesion, actually resulted in deeper hostility to outsiders.

But effective communications strategy can also heal. Dutch YouTuber Famke Louise promoted non-compliance with Covid measures in the Netherlands. She changed her mind and her message when Rotterdam doctor Diederick Gommers reached out to her and invited her to his hospital to learn about Covid’s effects. His non-judgemental approach worked.

Comparing this example with the hostile response to Nicki Minaj this month, when she talked about her vaccine hesitancy, it seems the temptation to condemn and mock is often greater than the desire to change minds. When we are ourselves polarised, we often prefer to do what feels good than to do what works.

Crucially, in the book’s final chapters, the authors offer some advice for anyone who wants to avoid falling prey to polarisation’s seductive power themselves

Two of the principles they recommend are particularly challenging for communicators to adopt.

Firstly, they recommend you slow down. Avoid committing to a position before you’ve had time to examine your beliefs. Once you’ve committed to a position, it’s painful to retreat.

If you’re working at the speed of a Twitter storm, time is a luxury you don’t have. Knowing when not to engage has become a vital skill.

Secondly, they advise you to get comfortable saying “I don’t know”. When the conversation is a battlefield, it can be tempting to pretend you have all the answers, but admitting you don’t is a great way to step back from the brink.

Businesses find themselves increasingly engaged in political conversations, and answering “I don’t know” to questions of principle is problematic, even though companies are straying further and further from their areas of core competence. Developing the confidence not to give a knee-jerk response under pressure from stakeholders is key.

But the authors recommend a third principle, which ought to come naturally to people in our industry: Adopt an ‘understanding mindset’. Acts of kindness can be disarming. Polarisation reduces debates to zero-sum arguments, but kindness helps us to see each other as people rather than adversaries, and to identify win-win scenarios.

Understanding people is the essence of great communication – and never more so than in the Networked Age, when people are medium through which ideas travel, peer-to-peer.

If we, of all people, can’t overcome our own biases, learn to see things from another perspective and offer the hand of friendship to our critics, then the world really is in trouble.

Poles Apart is now available.