French media is polarizing. But not in the way we expected.

By Ethan Zuckerman

During the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook became a battleground of persuasion and disinformation. Since then, there’s been a vigorous public debate about how—and to what extent—social networks are influencing democracy. While these conversations most often focus on the US, there is evidence that misinformation campaigns have sought to sway polls from London to Kinshasa. But does social media affect democracy the same way across the world, or do social platforms have different effects in different nations?

Over the past year, I’ve worked closely with colleagues at Sciences Po and Institut Montaigne in France to explore this question. We spent a year analyzing news stories and social media posts to understand whether French media was experiencing the same breed of political polarization as has emerged in American news and digital media. The good news for France is that they are not coming apart in the same way American media is. The bad news—and the much more interesting finding—is that French media reflects a different and disturbing fissure, between elite media—a small set of media with a strong reputation; we might call papers of record in the US—and non-elite media.

The media in the US is breaking apart from left to right, across the political spectrum, but media in France is breaking from top to bottom.

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