What is polarisation?

This article is part of Propaganda

Polarisation is a phenomenon where groups are increasingly pitted against each other in public debates. It’s an extreme form of us-versus-them thinking in which neither group has ears for the other’s ideas. Discover how polarisation arises, whether it’s always bad, and how to combat it.

How does polarisation arise?

Polarisation arises when two subgroups of the population pit themselves against the other’s identity. An ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is created, with a ‘silent middle ground’ in between. The latter consists of people who either have a nuanced opinion or no opinion at all on the debate. Both extremes try to draw the middle ground to their side. If they succeed, there is less and less room for nuance and the opposition only increases. 

Polarisation can arise anywhere: in the media, within the government, or simply in your neighbourhood. Places with lots of diversity and places where various groups struggle to communicate are especially vulnerable to polarisation.

(Social) media and polarisation

People with a strong opinion are often given speaking time in (news) media, more so than people from the ‘silent middle ground’. In that sense, the media can exacerbate polarisation. The same goes for social media: memes and other types of propaganda can spread virally and feed into polarisation. 

Yet (social) media are usually a catalyst rather than the cause of polarisation. They can emphasise certain existing oppositions in society, but those oppositions tend to be a real and preexisting condition.


Did you see a polarising message on social media? Don’t share the message and don’t start a debate with the person posting it. By liking the post, sharing it or commenting on it, you are increasing the likelihood of the message appearing on other people’s timelines. That can cause the polarisation to exacerbate exponentially.

Is polarisation bad?

Polarisation is not by definition bad or dangerous. Sometimes it’s even essential to get certain themes on the political agenda, like women’s suffrage in the 20th century. Polarisation can become problematic when people feel forced to leave the middle ground and when the ‘them’-group starts to be considered an enemy. In that case, polarisation can lead to serious conflict, extremist thinking and segregation.

How can you combat polarisation?

If we want to avoid polarisation, it’s important to listen to each other and to accept that there will be differences of opinion. That’s not a problem: the aim is not that we all start agreeing with each other, but that we try to understand each other’s point of view. That way, we can respect each other’s opinions and find a compromise.

Published on 16 October 2023