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Polarization: An intangible emerging issue

What happens when public debate occurs before the appropriate facts are provided?

Emerging Issues Weekly Digest

There appears to be a general sense of reluctance to establish a position of "I don't know" or "let's wait and see" while complex issues are being dissected.

In an era of rapid technological advancement and constant disruption, this is a question worth considering. In reality, we're operating in a complex and nuanced world. However, this complexity can be disregarded in public discourse, with people sometimes establishing a tendency to align themselves with a specific "side" before more substantive facts are laid out.

Courtesy of seemingly infinite access to articles, message boards, and more at our fingertips all day and night, this process may be accelerated. And while much of it transpires behind the scenes, this could trigger polarization on key issues before all the facts, or even some of them, come to light.

By the time the true experts can provide insight regarding a complex matter, the public opinion debates may have taken place, leading to large sets of people falling victim to "confirmation bias," which could subsequently cause them to tune out evidence that conflicts with their own beliefs.1

Ultimately, this cycle can drown out the voices that should be heard when examining an issue while also amplifying the opinions of those who may not be as qualified to speak on it.

This sequence can lead to problems involving public policy or public safety that are potentially avoidable. Some issues are difficult to resolve and require a coordinated response that entails cooperation by numerous citizens. However, roadblocks can be presented if a large enough group of people decides not to participate due to their opinion on the concept.

An example of this may be manifesting itself through the attempts to thwart the recent measles revival. According to TIME, 95 percent of a community needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, which is "the ability of a well-inoculated community to protect the few of its members who can't be vaccinated due to age, illness or a weakened immune system." 2

If more than five percent of a community chooses to bypass vaccination, then they not only expose themselves to the disease but become potential vectors to those most vulnerable to its effects.

5G, radiation, and the gray area

Earlier this May, the ISO Emerging Issues team published a story digging into the potential radiation risks that may emanate from the pending rollout of 5G infrastructure.

Ironically, a day before our post was published, the New York Times released a story chronicling a foreign network's attempts to stymie the rollout of 5G by speaking on these radiation risks more definitively and with hyperbole to instill fear into the general public.3 Among the statements distributed were that "it might kill you" and that children exposed to these signals from 5G towers would suffer from cancer, nosebleeds, and learning disabilities. Of note, these apparent fabrications (the Times notes that none of these claims have been substantiated by science) appear to represent how polarization can be weaponized in attempts to incite fear and, in part, stunt the technological progress of geopolitical rivals.

Nonetheless, the story is being disseminated by other blogs around the world. Additionally, according to WIRED, other groups across the Internet are making even more outrageous claims, including that the wildfires that devastated California in 2018 were perpetrated by the "ruling elite" because the state has not rolled out "mass 5G" to date.4 These statements would likely be dismissed by the vast majority of people around the globe, but WIRED notes that a study in the journal Science ascertained that false news was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.

Over time, the compounding of these seemingly nonsensical opinions could begin to sway public opinion. For example, the first mobile network operator to have launched 5G in the UK, according to WIRED, was compelled to respond to these theories and assuage the concerns of those who are frightened by these reports.

Circling back—yes, our post explored some possible concerns involving 5G radio wave frequencies, but the reality is that there are mixed opinions on this subject that likely need to be explored further. Unfortunately, these debates will continue to progress before the research is completed, tying back to the issues presented at the outset of this piece.

There appears to be a general sense of reluctance to establish a position of "I don't know" or "let's wait and see" while complex issues are being dissected. Compound this with the weaponization of controversial and unsubstantiated positions to foster this tendency further, and the climate to nurture a progress-stifling bubble that tunes out informed voices is established.

Could this environment impede the rollout of 5G through manufactured fears and conspiracies?

Or, if there are legitimate radiation dangers related to the infrastructure built to support 5G technology, will these concerns ultimately be discredited by those who assume it's a perpetuation of a motivated and biased group?

I don't know. Let's wait and see.

To learn more about important emerging issues facing insurers, please sign up for the ISO Emerging Issues Weekly Digest.

David Geller

David Geller, CPCU, SCLA, is product strategy manager, Underwriting Solutions at Verisk. He can be reached at

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  1. "Confirmation Bias And the Power of Disconfirming Evidence," Farnam Street, May, 2017, < >, accessed on July 7, 2021.
  2. Jeffrey Kluger, "'They're Chipping Away.' Inside the Grassroots Effort to Fight Mandatory Vaccines," TIME, June 13, 2019, < >, accessed on July 7, 2021.
  3. William Broad, "Your 5G Phone Won't Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise," New York Times, May 12, 2019, < >, accessed on July 7, 2021.
  4. Sabrina Weiss, "5G health risks are the internet's new favourite conspiracy theory," WIRED, December 6, 2019, < >, accessed on July 7, 2021.

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