There has been a lot of concern expressed about the role that social media might play in political polarization. The worry is that social media users might only expose themselves to news stories with which they agree and have friends that reinforce their own views, and thereby become more extreme in their views and less understanding or tolerant of those who disagree with them. A recent paper seems to show that the phenomenon is real, but less extreme than we might have thought; at least among those people who identify their political orientation. This group is likely to be more politically aware than other users and may be thought to be more extreme in their exposure to self-reinforcing stories. On average, this group had about 23% of friends with an opposing political viewpoint, and about 29% of the stories they read presented views that were opposed to theirs.
One thing worth mentioning about the study is that it showed user choice – what people choose to click on – played a greater role in skewing exposure to stories that might reinforce pre-existing views than did the Facebook algorithm, which tailors stories to user behavior (history of clicking on links to sites, in the main). That’s worth noting because user choice can skew exposure in any medium: online newspapers, print publications, and so on. If skewed exposure is the problem, social media may not be especially to blame.
But I want to focus on another issue. What was the content and what were the effects of that 29% of stories to which users were exposed?
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.