Descriptions of opposing ideologies as extreme are the new normal
Polarisation is on the rise in Britain. A new paper by David Rozado and myself shows that major British media outlets have, like their American equivalents, grown increasingly extreme in their characterisation of opposing ideologies since 2000. Terms like ‘extreme-Right’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘extreme-Left’ have surged since 2014 alongside social justice phrases like ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacy’ whose explosion in frequency has been dubbed the Great Awokening.
Although it goes in both political directions, the use of extreme language is slanted against the Right, with Left-leaning outlets like the Guardian, Independent and Mirror using extreme language for the Right 5.6 times more often than for the Left, as figure 1 shows. Meanwhile, the Right-leaning Mail, Telegraph and Sun only use extreme language for the Right 2.1 times as often as for the Left. Centrist sites like the BBC use extreme language for the Right around 3 times as often as they do for the Left.
In part this reflects the rise in support for the populist Right following the 2014 European elections. Yet Left-leaning sources are considerably more likely than those on the Right to characterise the Right or conservatives as extreme. In a number of stories we sampled, Right-wing outlets characterising the Right as extreme were quoting Left-wing politicians and papers, and vice-versa.
The ratio and pattern over time in use of these terms in Britain is similar to what we find for the US.
The rise in the use of extreme terms to characterise both Right (red line below) and Left (blue) trends in tandem with use of prejudice terms such as ‘racist’ or ‘white supremacy’ (orange) and social justice terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘bias’ (green) — and this takes place at roughly the same time in America and Britain. One explanation is that woke radicalism and Right-wing reaction are locked in a spiral of recursive radicalisation. Media may have become increasingly partisan, or political actors may actually have grown more extreme, but the end result is an increasingly fractious media discourse.
While it is unclear precisely what is producing our hyperbolic post-2015 news diet, British patterns look very similar to those in the United States. If media output is a leading indicator of mass polarisation, this could portend even choppier waters ahead for Britain.