ISLAMABAD: At a time when public discourse is needed the most, rising political extremism, mistrust and hyper information is sowing divisions, said a new report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Calling it a “new phenomenon in human development” the report titled ‘Human Development Report 2021-22’ discussed polarisation and how uncertainty and insecurity can exacerbate it.

The report explored how polarisation can intensify due to human insecurity and the economic, social and political shift driven by a rapidly changing (digital) information context. It said in many countries, the process of public deliberations and social choices is coming under strain amid intensifying political polarisation and divisions.

“The rise in polarisation today comes alongside progress in other dimensions of human wellbeing —greater economic prosperity, uptake of new technologies, and improvements in health, education and gender equality.”

The report noted that despite clear progress on many fronts, human insecurity is putting people under stress and pulling them apart.

The report added that people tend to trust those closer to them more than people whom they do not know or who have a different social background.

“Lower trust in socially distant people influences social discrimination, among other socioeconomic outcomes,” it said, adding that the pattern tends to be stronger across individuals with low incomes and with greater human insecurity.

The report also highlighted that people with higher insecurity prefer extreme views about the government’s role in the economy which hampers public deliberation in uncertain times when insecurity is higher.

Experimental analysis of brain’s activity through magnetic resonance imaging indicated that people with greater intolerance of uncertainty are likely to bond with politically like-minded peers and less with opponents, fuelling the formation of polarised beliefs.

The report noted that these insecurities can be exploited by political entities and leaders. “Attractive extreme political ideologies often connect to people’s distress, cognitive simplicity, overconfidence in judgement and intolerance towards alternative views because of perceived moral superiority.”

The situation is exploited by elites who have political incentives to fuel polarisation through negative campaigns, uncivil discourse and vitriol against opponents, the report said.

“People’s perception that those from opposing parties hold extreme positions has been found to be more strongly associated with animus … than with actual differences in policy preferences,” the report pointed out, adding that social media can support public deliberation as free flow of information is fundamental to democratic processes.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2022

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