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The empty echo chamber: A conversation with Dr Axel Bruns

  • 22 September 2022
Despite our differing social and cultural beliefs, we can mostly agree that we live in highly polarised times. But what divides us? ARC Laureate Fellow Prof. Axel Bruns studies social polarisation, and in this discussion with Eureka Street, we explore the drivers of polarisation, examining the role that digital and social media and broader social and political contexts play in intensifying social conflicts, threatening economic prosperity, undermining public trust, and ultimately destabilising societies.

David Halliday: Eureka Street is trying to create a space for constructive conversation. There’s a number of new media publications trying to do a similar thing, trying to move beyond polemics or echo chambers, into a space where you’re never entirely sure what you’re going to be presented with — hopefully something that actually tries to drive conversation forward. In that sense, you’re the perfect person to speak with because your current research project is around the problem of polarisation. Can you tell me a little bit about your work at the moment?

Dr Axel Bruns: The first thing to say is, we’re just getting started. I won an Australian Laureate Fellowship about a year ago. Essentially, it’s a five-year project to investigate polarisation and partisanship, especially in online contexts. But obviously, the distinctions between online and offline are fairly fluid these days. So, we’re interested here in better understanding the different types of polarisation — to assess levels and depths of polarisation across different topics and different contexts, both locally and internationally, to really understand the question of how bad the problem is.

We keep talking about polarisation increasing. But how do you even assess that? I mean, everyone is going to say polarisation is getting worse, but maybe it’s just becoming more obvious. If you look at the United States for example, then yes, it’s probably a more polarised nation now than it has ever been. But at the same time, the US has always been a deeply polarised country. It’s always had a two-party system, which has been problematic in many ways, certainly for many decades now. It’s always had deep divisions between classes, between races, between the north and the south. None of this is particularly new. Maybe it’s just become more obvious, particularly through online communication, which enables us to be much more visible than in the past. I’m not saying that it’s not getting worse. But the idea is to assess this in