The virus of polarization: online debates about Covid-19 in Germany

Fabiana Schmid, Oliver Treib*, Franziska Eckardt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

To what extent do online debates display features of political polarization and in how far does polarization pose a problem for democracy? We zoom in on affective polarization: the formation of societal groups with hostile feelings towards each other, arguing that affective polarization is particularly problematic for democracy if it features elements of political intolerance, which undermines key tenets of even the most conflict-prone theories of democracy. While affective polarization has been on the rise in several countries, Germany has been considered to be a country with low, and even declining levels of affective polarization. But does this still hold true during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a rapid rise in conspiracy theories? Based on a qualitative discourse analysis of online debates about Covid-19 on the Facebook platforms of a mainstream and a non-mainstream German media outlet, we find strong traces of affective polarization on both platforms, involving clear indications of political intolerance. Our findings suggest that the democratic discourse is threatened by the nature of online debates about Covid-19, and it is threatened not only by anti-rationalist conspiracists at the ideological extremes but also by the intolerance of more moderate rationalists at the centre of the political spectrum.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2150087
JournalPolitical Research Exchange
Volume5
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Keywords

  • Conspiracy theories
  • Democracy
  • Polarization
  • Public debates
  • Social media

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