As in many other countries – including the seemingly ever-increasing prevalence of partisanship in the USA – Germany has also shown a tendency towards polarity. Germany’s polarization of society divides people into separate – if not segregated – living environments. 

While social cohesion is in decline, relations between groups are moving apart as well. Germans are increasingly living in disconnected bubbles. More and more, the following applies to German society: 

Even if Germans may meet very different people in everyday life, the circle of close and familiar people with whom they have a longer conversation tends to consist mostly of people who are quite similar to themselves.

This means living inside what is known as a filter bubble – a tendency of social groups to interact only among themselves. Although this is by no means new, it can be problematic. The issue gets worse when, for example, as seen very recently, there is a marked intensification of heated social, political, and ideological conflict

In a recent study – entitled Entkoppelte Lebenswelten or “decoupled life-worlds” – a rather surprising set of new data emerged on cohesion, social networks, and filter bubbles in Germany. 

How entrenched are filter bubbles in Germany? First of all, one might like to examine the composition of social circles and networks of friends and acquaintances with regard to social cohesion. This illuminates the severity of filter bubbles in Germany.

Furthermore, one needs to include the internal homogeneous identity of such social networks and filter bubbles. This is the actual physical space (club, bar) or online space (chatroom, Telegram, X, Instagram) where like-minded people congregate. Next, there seems to be a certain point – inside such networks and circles of friends – at which a person starts to, more or less, exclusively and predominantly, communicate mostly with those inside the filter bubble

Meanwhile – and this often seems to occur simultaneously – those outside the filter bubble hardly play any role at all anymore. In many cases, these insider-vs.-outside filter bubbles also carry an ideological dimension. In fact, there are several identifying aspects that define German filter bubbles: 

Being broad-minded, liberal & progressiveBeing conservative, reactionary & neo-fascistic
Being close to the environmental Green movement Being close to the neo-fascist AfD party
Tend to be highly educatedTend to be at the lower end of education
Tend to be on the upper income scaleTend to be on the lower income scale
To be found in the domestic populations To be found in the migrant/Muslim sub-culture
To be living in the western parts of Germany To be found in the eastern parts of Germany 
Found to be living mostly in citiesFound to be living mostly in rural areas

These overall groupings, clusters, and trends are based on the data of a recent study conducted in the year 2021. It is an annual, representative, and longitudinal study showing the development of German society, the existence of filter bubbles, and polarization. It is based on 12,000 respondents.

Its empirical facts support the existence of social network segregation and filter bubbles. Yet, overall one might say that the frequency of the appearance of such homogeneous networks and filter bubbles depends fundamentally on the frequency with which certain characteristics occur in Germany’s population.

From this perspective, it can be ascertained to what extent homogeneous networks are more common than one might have expected. This assessment is based on the frequency of characteristics defining filter bubbles that appear inside Germany. 

With the high prevalence of homogeneous networks, it is increasingly justifiable to talk about what might be more precisely termed as network segregation.

This is supported by rafts of additional factors such as, for example, the ever-rising and ever more fundamental social and spatial inequalities in German society. This has been deliberately engineered by the apostles of neoliberalism since the 1980s when Reagan married Thatcher.

The splitting and fractionalization of society is based on neoliberal ideology, which results in sharpened polarization and network segregation. These segregated networks are all too often spiced up by online filter bubbles

Both ensure that opportunities for everyday casual and social encounters in, for example, neighborhoods, social clubs, local public schools and in the working environment become ever more pre-filtered

This is made worse through lines of demarcation between social groups that exist even inside the work environment. These range from rather unconscious and latent distancing to more severe cases such as, for example, open hostility, resentment, and outright rejection of the other.

Besides all this, many people seem to have a tendency towards an unconscious confirmation bias for sameness – also known as affinity bias and as homophily. This is a preference for people who resemble one’s self. In short, we like people who are like us.

Yet there are also other factors that contribute to the emergence of homogeneous networks which help us to remain“amongst ourselves”, such as, for instance, people who actively engage in politics. 

The tendency towards living inside such networks is particularly strong among supporters of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, where a staggering 62% of Green Party voters live inside politically homogeneous networks.

Unsurprisingly, on the other end of politics, among supporters of the neofascist AfD, no less than 50% of AfD voters report that their circle of acquaintances is predominantly composed of AfD supporters. In other words, about half of all AfD affiliated people live inside a segregated network of AfD supporters. 

This fact will only further the right-wing’s semi-paranoid style of touting the existence of an internal and external enemy, the “them-vs.-us” way of thinking that was illustrated as a behavior control technique for manipulating the masses by Hermann Goering in his “that is easy” statement.

The tendency towards living inside a segregated social network in Germany is also strong among people of the Muslim faith, among people with low educational levels, as well as those residing in rural environments. 

Other decisive factors are whether one lives in the western parts of Germany or in the former East-Germany. And of course there is also the gap between rich and poor. This too encourages people to live in segregated networks.

Unlike in the United States, those people who adhere to the, in Germany, increasingly less relevant Christian faith are less likely to favor segregated networks. Again, unlike the hyper-religious USA, in a recent study 8 out of 10 Germans said that religion has next to no meaning for them. 

Despite religion being increasingly irrelevant, one still finds a less widespread tendency towards network segregation among West Germans. This brings us to the conclusion that location is rather more of a defining factor than religion.

Location, religion and other factors reveal serious implications, however in order to understand the relationship between network homogeneity and social cohesion, four important aspects must be looked at more closely:

  1. Social and Moral Values: these are ideas of social coexistence such as a more universalist versus a more traditionalist outlook;
  2. Political and Ideological Attitudes: this can mean, for example, trust in democratic institutions, an overall satisfaction with democracy, or even the likelihood of believing in right-wing populism;
  3. Experiencing Social Cohesion: this is defined by the avoidance of social conflict; it can be found in social institutions like family, neighborhood, and colleagues at work; and finally,
  4. Emotions and Socio-cultural Attitudes: these are feelings towards other social groups within German society.

Besides such general aspects, there are also individual attitudes, experiences, and emotions related to group affiliations. These attitudes are often defined through income and education. Without a doubt, living in filter bubbles and segregated networks can also occur regardless of individuality

This means that there is no automatism. In other words, exhibiting one or all four elements does not mean that one is automatically trapped inside a filter bubble. Yet, there clearly is an overall tendency towards filter bubbles and segregated networks.

The composition of such a filter bubble can be illustrated by the example of education. In the group of people with lower levels of educational achievement, 16% actually live inside a filter bubble. Simultaneously, only 9% of Germans regarded as being highly educated live inside filter bubble networks defined for their group.

Apart from the education factor, political networks emerged as one of the most polarizing forms of filter bubbles. Germans, whose friends and acquaintances are predominantly close to the environmentalist Green Party – whether with party membership or not – turned out to be a mirror image of people whose acquaintances are predominantly close to the neo-fascist AfD. In other words, both sides tend towards their respective networks with next to no engagement between the two groups.

Interestingly, this applies even more strongly to ideological values and political attitudes. But – surprisingly – it does not at all relate to everyday experiences of cohesion and social conflict. In other words, ideology overrides actual experience. This means, illogically enough, that the Neo-Nazi does not need to have a Jew or Muslim living next door in order to be a Neo-Nazi. In fact it’s often the case that no actual contact with “the other” enables the negative myth to flourish.

Most importantly, there is a pronounced polarization between the supporters of the environmentalist Green Party, and people close to the AfD. Even more interesting, but not so surprising, is the fact that both groups openly harbor negative feelings toward the other group.

Predictably, both groups also have positive feelings for their own group. Therefore, the sharpest polarization in Germany exists among those two opposing camps. It is Greens-versus-AfD. It sets progressive environmentalism against reactionary neofascism.

If we take into account the strong tendency towards network segregation in both groups, we can see that a rather pronounced decoupling of social networks has emerged. This, of course, corresponds to the reinforcing of their respective ideologies inside online filter bubbles and actual IRL (in real life) networks. 

In sharp contrast, and away from politics, there are also socio-economic network characteristics. They often link to everyday experiences of social cohesion. In the German workplace and in neighborhood relationships, there are people who remain inside networks that are centered on the economically disadvantaged, and these people display more dismissive attitudes as well as being more resentful towards others.

Interestingly, Germans living in networks defined by economic poverty tend to prefer localized community engagement – often restricted to families and immediate neighborhoods. At the same time, people living in more wealthy networks are more likely to show attitudes like individualism and independence and engage with a wider circle of people.

There are, however, also additional differences. These are located in the area of ideological values and political attitudes. In other words, there are people living inside networks of the rich who tend to have traditional values akin to those espoused by neoliberal conservatives and the AfD. At the same time, there are people living in networks defined by poverty who are progressives.

On the other hand, there is a far greater tendency towards right-wing populism among people living in networks of the poor. This is also the case for people living in networks defined by low levels of education

At the same time, this is less pronounced among those Germans living in networks of the rich and highly educated, although it must not be ruled out, because greedy and intelligent psychopaths can use populism to attain wealth and power, as did the many industrialists who supported Hitler’s rise. 

In Germany today (but also in the USA), geography still seems to define destiny. Germans living in the more homogeneous East-Germany, for example, tend to favor traditionalism and conservatism. They are also less inclined to support the idea of universalism

Meanwhile, people in predominantly rural networks prefer communal ideals of living together – mostly in the form of family, neighborhoods, and local communities. They also prefer more traditionalist values and less universalist values.

The opposite is true for people living predominantly in urban networks. As for the differences between East and West Germans, there appears to be an emotional differentiation since East-Germans have a more positive feeling towards their own group. West Germans have a tendency to disparage East Germans, but they don’t necessarily like their own group that much better.

In the end, German society is far from being strictly divided into completely separate bubbles. But without a doubt there is still a relatively clear tendency towards network segregation. There is also a strong link between homogeneous social networks and the values, ideologies, and attitudes of people inside such filter bubbles.

Research shows that a majority of people in Germany – about 55% – move in social networks that, at least to some extent, can be defined as relatively homogeneous. The downside is that segregation and the internal cohesion of homogeneous networks poses a problem for Germany’s overall social cohesion. 

The emergence of homogeneous social networks is, to a large extent, defined by structural, social, economic, and institutional inequality.

Filter bubbles and segregated networks make communication between different social groups more difficult. When one’s own filter bubble becomes an all-defining comfort zone that reinforces already existing attitudes and ideologies, a more segregated society is created. Atomized individuals and segregated social groups within society are a detriment to democracy.

Photo: The sign reads “Nazis? – My Ass” (source: https://www.linksfraktion-hessen.de/positionen/themen/antifaschismus/)

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