‘Bubble trouble’: how bad is polarisation in the Netherlands really?

“The Dutch are annoyed by polarisation, and they surround themselves with like-minded people,” was the headline of the Dutch news agency NOS between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The reason was a new report from the The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), which exposed the state of social relations in the lowlands. The research shows that no less than 75% of Dutch people are concerned about polarisation and feel that differences of opinion on social issues are increasing (think of the farmers’ protests, the black pete discussion, and (anti)vaxxers). The cause is sought in deteriorating manners, a ‘hardening’ of the debate, and the infamous (filter) bubbles. And that is not an innocent development, because such polarisation “may eventually affect social cohesion and the functioning of democracy,” according to the SCP. Is it all doom and gloom then? Fortunately not – Civinc’s method shows that constructive conversations between opposites are not utopian.

Social media as a cesspool of extremism

If you ask the Dutch (in the focus groups of the SCP), social media in particular play a role in the growing polarisation. First of all, anonymity on social media makes it easier for people to express extreme opinions, and they are rewarded by attention. On social media platforms such as Twitter or YouTube, small but extreme groups have a loud voice, and attention generates more attention, including from traditional media, which often look for sensationalism. This is a vicious circle — as the SCP report points out: “small groups draw attention to certain issues, use a loud or negative tone to do so and thus receive more attention in the media.”

The Bubble Society

Additionally, people nowadays (both online and offline) more often live in a ‘bubble’ of like-minded people, and in family contexts or friend groups they are less likely to express themselves in an extreme way to avoid conflict or to stay in each other’s good graces — especially in an era in which a growing number of themes are (by some) considered hypersensitive. Against this background, social media offers the opportunity to express yourself in a simple and anonymous way, with all the extreme dynamics that come with it: think, for example, the aforementioned of extremist movements on YouTube, and the ‘cancel culture’ that in turn sharply criticises this.

Digging our (digital) heels in

In this way, there is little room to really listen to each other, and the (public) debate ‘hardens’ more and more. People are ruder towards each other, and they have a significantly shorter temper when it comes to (sensitive) social issues. The main concern here: if we refuse to talk to each other, we can no longer come up with solutions together. And that has adverse effects in all areas of society: for example also in companies, where diversity, equity & inclusion is an emerging but also (for some) a controversial theme.

In short: people are becoming increasingly harsh online, and ‘in real life’ we are more hesitant to express our opinion. Due to this (online) hardening of tone and the increasing reluctance to discuss sensitive topics, prejudices against other people are increasing, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk to each other. Which is bad for our democracy.

But… There is hope!

Civinc is committed to countering this problem by enabling people with opposing beliefs to engage in dialogue in a constructive manner. We are not looking for any predetermined outcome, and we do not want to convince people of a certain opinion. What we do want is that people dare to confront each other, without that hardened, harsh tone that the SCP research has identified online.

Civinc has developed a unique method for ‘constructive conflict’ in which participants on our platform are matched with others with opposing beliefs in an anonymous one-on-one chat (see how it works here). Anonymous, digital, polar opposites… we can hear you thinking: doesn’t that lead to extreme expressions, escalation and polarisation? The answer is unequivocal (and perhaps surprisingly): no! On the contrary. Academic research shows that discussions with Civinc actually lead to more sympathy for the other side, more willingness to enter into conversation, and less extreme opinions. How is that possible? The anonymity ensures that people feel safer to reveal their opinions, but because the setting is intimate, the group dynamics and pressure that often makes social media such a toxic environment is missing. You are in conversation with only one other person, and screaming for attention does not yield any social capital here (read more about the unique impact here).

Let’s make conversation.

This makes the Civinc method a promising answer to the growing polarisation that is reflected in the SCP research. The platform was used by hundreds of thousands of Dutch voters in the run-up to the elections in 2017 and 2021 (see here), and has since offered a solution for organisations and education to discuss important topics in a constructive way. If you want to know more about our method, or if you have ideas about how it can be used, send us a message at hello@civinc.co and let’s make conversation!

Let's make conversation.

Connecting perspectives starts here! We will gladly demo the platform, learn more about your objectives and explore if it’s a good match. Contact us by filling out the form below, or shoot us a message directly at hello@civinc.co.