Study: Social Media Actually Reduces Political Polarization

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political polarization

Previous research has found that social media has a polarizing effect, creating echo chambers where people only interact with those who share similar political views. “Polarized Crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags,” said a Pew report.

However, a new study suggests otherwise. Researcher Pablo Barberá of New York University has published a study that examines how social media can actually reduce political polarization. He argues that social media help users connect with “weak ties” (for example, high school classmates you would never otherwise keep in touch with). Barberá hypothesized that “weak ties tend to be with people who are more politically heterogeneous than citizens’ immediate personal networks, [and] this exposure reduces political extremism.”

Barberá studied Twitter users in Germany, Spain and the U.S. by measuring their ideological positions and using those measurements to estimate the ideal points for each country. He also matched the names of certain Twitter users with voter files in a handful of U.S. states, and found:

Contrary to previous results in the literature on social media and political polarization, I find that social media does not increase political extremism. My analysis provides evidence that individuals who are embedded in heterogenous personal networks and who are exposed to dissonant political content become more moderate over time…
 
The most significant change associated with the increased usage of social media sites is the frequency of communication exchanges beyond the most immediate personal networks. Citizens are now exposed not only to their close friends’ opinions, but also to political content shared by their co-workers, childhood friends, distant relatives, and other people with whom they form weak ties.

(H/T NiemanLab)

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Are Social Networks Creating Political Polarization?

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Politics is all over our social networks. Political leanings can create echo chambers on Twitter, people can’t see themselves having political conversations without Facebook, and online dating may be contributing to the political polarization of the country. Users may plant a flag on either side of the political divide, but the effects are more wide ranging than they first appear.

A study from the Pew Research Internet Project attempts to create a model for mapping different types of Internet communities on Twitter. While the study defined six different types of network crowds, it also noted the political groups could largely be defined as ‘Polarized Crowds.’

“Polarized discussions feature two big and dense groups that have little connection between them. The topics being discussed are often highly divisive and heated political subjects,” the report says. “In fact, there is usually little conversation between these groups despite the fact that they are focused on the same topic. Polarized Crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags.”

Pew’s data suggests that political differences create gated communities of users that rarely interact with the other side of the debate. But Twitter does have a political bias, at least in the numbers. According to survey data from the Harvard Institute of Politics, 46 percent of political tweeters identify as Democrat and 38 percent identify as Republican.

Google+, Instagram and Tumblr also hold the same bias with a 16 percentage point, four percentage point and 11 percentage point gap, respectively. Facebook was neck and neck with 87 percent of both Republicans and Democrats using the network. Snapchat and Foursquare were also pretty evenly split along political lines. Pinterest was the only network where Republicans outnumber Democrats by eight percentage points.

Adrian Chen of Gawker once wrote of Pinterest — “Pinterest is the most inoffensive, white-bread place on the Internet, a gated community of perfectly curated boards sprinkled with Etsy-made children’s toys and food blog recipes, sheltered from the blasted racist hellscape of the rest of the Web.”

But while social networks may skew politically, dating sites may be skewing politics. The consequences of selecting a mate through online dating are that users can be very specific on many factors, including political orientation. By entering into a relationship that’s an ideological echo chamber or gated community, both participants could lose sight of what motivates others with different viewpoints.

Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, writes in Pacific Standard, “When people do not understand the rationale behind contradictory beliefs — something we learn from talking with friends and loved ones who hold opposing views — we tend to be less tolerant toward the opposition.”

Social networks allow us to engage with almost any viewpoint, from anyone around the world. But so often we choose to push away other opinions in favor of what we already know, or wish to believe.

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