The Role of Media in Political Polarization| Mediatized Campaign Attacks Fuel Affective Polarization if Perceived as Negative: Experimental Evidence With American Voters
There is mounting evidence in the United States and worldwide that highlights a widespread and deepening “principled dislike” between partisan groups. Stemming from group identity dynamics, such as “affective polarization,” it is likely to be triggered by exposure to intra-elite conflicts, such as campaign negativity and incivility. However, empirical evidence for this effect is scarce, and it rests only on survey data; causal evidence linking campaign attacks and affective polarization is still missing. In this article, we advance the hypothesis that the effects of exposure to mediatized political attacks are likely mediated by how negative such attacks are perceived. To test our expectations, we leverage new evidence from an online experiment with convenience sample of American voters (N = 1,081). Our results suggest that exposure to intra-elites’ political attacks can drive affective polarization, but this unfolds mostly as a function of perceived negativity of those messages, and only for respondents that are ideologically affiliated with the target of the attack. Negativity is in the eye of the beholder, especially when one is being attacked.