MMM Workshop September 2023

Unpacking polarization: Antagonism and Alignment in Signed Networks of Online Interaction

David Garcia
Computational Social Science Lab, University of Konstanz

13 Sep 2023, 16:00–16:25

Presentation Slides (Online)


Online polarization research currently focuses on studying single-issue opinion distributions or computing distance metrics of interaction network structures. Limited data availability often restricts studies to positive interaction data, which can misrepresent the reality of a discussion. We introduce a novel framework that aims at combining these three aspects, content and interactions, as well as their nature (positive or negative), while challenging the prevailing notion of polarization as an umbrella term for all forms of online conflict or opposing opinions.

In our approach, built on the concepts of cleavage structures and structural balance of signed social networks, we factorize polarization into two distinct metrics: Antagonism and Alignment. Antagonism quantifies hostility in online discussions, based on the reactions of users to content. Alignment uses signed structural information encoded in long-term user-user relations on the platform to describe how well user interactions fit the global and/or traditional sides of discussion. We can analyse the change of these metrics through time, localizing both relevant trends but also sudden changes that can be mapped to specific contexts or events.

We apply our methods to two distinct platforms: Birdwatch, a US crowd-based fact-checking extension of Twitter, and DerStandard, an Austrian online newspaper with discussion forums. In these two use cases, we find that our framework is capable of describing the global status of the groups of users (identification of cleavages) while also providing relevant findings on specific issues or in specific time frames. Furthermore, we show that our four metrics describe distinct phenomena, emphasizing their independent consideration for unpacking polarization complexities.

Relevant publications

Unpacking polarization: Antagonism and Alignment in Signed Networks of Online Interaction