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Is it really true that we’ve never been more divided as a society? And if it is, how did it happen and what can be done?

Those are the big questions being investigated on Polarised, the new podcast from the RSA exploring the political and cultural forces driving us further apart. It’s presented by the RSA’s Matthew Taylor and the author of books about curiosity and lying, Ian Leslie.

The first six-part series examines some of the main political fault lines and asks whether and how they contributed to the Trump and Brexit votes. Some people blame the filter bubble and big tech, and the ways nefarious actors are using them to manipulate us. Others say it’s all about economic anxiety and inequality. Or perhaps there’s something deeper going on – something psychological – that’s bringing about a return to tribalism, wall-building and the politics of anger.

 

Matthew and Ian start by asking sociologist Paula Surridge whether we’re now divided into two main tribes – liberals and authoritarians – finding that both sides are becoming more entrenched. Authoritarianism may be taking hold in some parts of the US and Europe, but equally defenders of liberalism are more becoming more staunch in their views.

By now, lots of us have heard at least part of the story of the Facebook election scandal. Cambridge Analytica, the company in the eye of the storm, has closed its doors and is under investigation. But how effective were its methods? Can ‘psychographic microtargeting’ – new methods used to create personalised ads which play upon our deepest, darkest fears – really swing elections and referendums? We hear about experiments in deploying these methods in the UK, and cast the whole conspiracy theory in considerable doubt.

Online campaigning tactics might not be the primary cause of division – but has the internet poisoned our politics in other ways? Is it inevitable that the internet and social media drive us to the extremes, or do they just hold up a mirror to an already divided culture? Ian and Matthew explore the dark side of the internet – trolls, racist memes, hate-filled comment sections and increasingly virulent culture wars – and ask whether it hijacked the White House. Their guide is Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture.

Perhaps the real key to understanding polarised societies is the issue that’s defined economic life in Britain since the late seventies: rising inequality. Meanwhile, in the US, some people put 'economic anxiety' at the root of the Trump votes. But what does that phrase really mean, and is it masking racial undercurrents? Ian and Matthew speak to Faiza Shaheen, director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS). And we hear from the Emmy-winning director and photographer Lauren Greenfield, whose new documentary Generation Wealth tells the story of how the American Dream came to be corrupted.

 

The final two parts of the series deal with the way we construct our realities and talk about politics. Silvia Majo-Vazquez from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism busts some myths about echo chambers, filter bubbles and fake news. And Claire Fox from the Academy of Ideas makes the case for the politics of anger and passionate debate.

The first series of Polarised is available for free on Google Podcasts and Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

 

 

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