GJIL researcher and Queensland University of Technology Professor, Axel Bruns, has been awarded a prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowship to study the impact of polarisation in online environments.
He will receive AU$3,518,080 from the Australian Research Council (ARC) for his project, Determining the Drivers and Dynamics of Partisanship and Polarisation in Online Public Debate.
The five-year project will conduct the first-ever assessment of the extent and dynamics of polarisation in the contemporary online and social media environments of six nations – Australia, the US, the UK, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland.
Professor Bruns said escalating partisanship and polarisation, particularly via online and social media platforms, presented an urgent challenge for western democracies including Australia and a threat to cybersecurity worldwide.
“We aim to enable an urgently needed defence of our society and democracy against the challenges of polarisation,” said Bruns. “Polarisation intensifies social conflicts, threatens economic prosperity, undermines public trust, and ultimately destabilises societies. Such instability can be exploited by domestic extremists or foreign influence campaigns to weaken sovereign states.”
Bruns explained that although Australia has so far been less affected than other leading democracies, they are not immune to creeping polarisation and subsequent destabilisation.
“Much recent debate still looks for the drivers of polarisation in all the wrong places. Such perspectives see platform algorithms as creating ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’ that lock users into partisan communities with diametrically opposed views and ideologies, but as I showed in my recent book Are Filter Bubbles Real?, this ignores the fact that even extremely polarised groups follow mainstream debate very closely and in fact exploit the very absence of echo chambers to maximise the reach of their messaging.”
Bruns is one of 17 scholars being awarded the fellowship in 2021 out of a total of 170 applicants.