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Social Media Users Encounter More, Not Less, Political Diversity

Our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated.

Berkeley BreathedBerkeley BreathedIf you use social media, you're more likely to get your news from more than one political perspective, according to a study by the Oxford-based researchers Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.

This flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that says the internet segregates society into ever more cloistered communities of like-minded people. Ideological bubbles are real, but ideological bubbles have always been real; they may well be more permeable now than in the past.

If you regularly read this website, you're probably a "news user"—one of the three groups Fletcher and Nielsen identify in a YouGov survey of internet users around the globe. News users go online for the express purpose of reading about current events.

The second group is the "non-users." These are the people who avoid social media altogether. And somewhere in the middle there are the "incidentally exposed": people who use social media for nonpolitical purposes, but could conceivably come across a news story anyway. Think of someone who visits Facebook to stay in touch with friends but might click on a news story that comes up in the feed.

Fletcher and Nielsen zero in on data from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany in a write-up of their findings at the Nieman Journalism Lab. As you might expect, news users drew on more media sources than anyone else.

In America, for example, they reported reading or viewing stories from an average of 5.16 different sources in the previous week. The incidentally exposed group, in turn, drew on more sources (an average of 3.29) than the people who didn't use social media at all (an average of just 1.8).

"These differences remain statistically significant after controlling for a range of demographic and news attitude variables," the authors note.

Needless to say, not everyone who looks at more than one news site is looking at sites from more than one point of view. But if you use social media, you're much more likely to take in sources from multiple perspectives. This chart shows the percentage of each group that used both at least one source from the left and at least one source from the right:

Nieman Journalism LabNieman Journalism Lab

As you can see, most Americans don't look at stories from more than one political perspective. But people who are on social media clearly tend to have a more diverse news diet than people who aren't.

Bonus link: For more on this theme, check out my review of Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble. Here's an excerpt:

Yes, our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated. Pariser imagines the Internet becoming a stagnant "city of ghettoes" where "connections and overlap between communities" disappear. But how many people belong to just one online community? A personalized Internet is an Internet geared toward your particular combination of interests, and therefore to your particular combination of human networks. If you're a Methodist Democrat in South Baltimore who watches birds, follows basketball, and loves Elvis, you might be in touch online with people who share your faith but not your politics, and vice versa; your neighborhood but not your hobby, and vice versa; your taste in sports but not in music, and vice versa. That isn't a city of ghettoes. It's a city of crossroads.

And while there may be many good reasons to hate Facebook, an insufficient diversity of views isn't one of them. One of the chief effects of using the site, after all, is to discover your friends' horrifying opinions.

Photo Credit: Berkeley Breathed

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Wait a minute. Does reason.com count as social media? Yuck.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    More like anti-social media.

  • ||

    Wait a minute. Does reason.com count as social media? Yuck.

    Yeah, for a minute I was worried that I might have to get off my own lawn too.

  • Curt||

    Those categories don't make sense as they are described. I dug through the linked site trying to find the data behind those graphs and didn't succeed. As someone who uses social media, but finds news through websites instead of social media, I'm really not clear whether I'm a "news user" or "incidentally exposed." It seems to imply the "news user" uses social media for the specific purpose of getting to news while the "incidentally exposed" just happens to find some while facebooking but doesn't otherwise go in search of news.

    Jesse, any chance you can point to the part on the linked site that contains that data?

  • Crusty Juggler - Double Great||

    But people on social media clearly tend to have a more diverse news diet than people who aren't.

    Alt right and SJW!

    Cucks and Snowflakes!

    Them and us!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Pepe and Dank Bernie!

  • Sevo||

    Imagine having the pleasure of dealing with more than one commie-kid!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I thought the central problem with the "other perspectives" is they were fake news, creating a vocal demand that everyone get their news from the NYT, WaPo or CNN, organizations whose journalistic reputation is beyond reproach.

  • ||

    NPR ran a story about a fake news test. After (getting over the surreal/bizarre nature of such a thing and) taking it, I'm more convinced of my ability to identify fake news *and* that the definition of 'fake news' is in no way related to 'real news'.

  • Rich||

    most Americans don't look at stories from more than one political perspective.

    "Why expose myself to that progressive/conservative crap?"

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    Yes, I come here for barely disguised right-wing talking points masquerading as libertarianism. Basically, every Republican employs it before launching some bullshit war on a 3rd world country.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Pay attention to meeee!" the troll explained.

  • ||

    Basically, every Republican employs it before launching some bullshit war on a 3rd world country.

    I blame Lincoln.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    -7 CSA states

  • Mark22||

    Basically, every Republican employs it before launching some bullshit war on a 3rd world country.

    An ironic statement, given Obama's and Hillary's record.

    The fact that Hillary is a heartless, warmongering, borderline insane sociopath probably contributed greatly to her loss.

  • hello.||

    Since Reason is nothing but a Third Way Democrat publication, you must be off the fucking rails to think the talking points are right wing. But then again when you're a fan of a mass murdering dictator...

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    If you regularly read this website, you're probably a "news user"—one of the three groups Fletcher and Nielsen identify in a YouGov survey of internet users around the globe. News users go online for the express purpose of reading about current events.

    Nope, I'm online for fanart of cartoons I like and pornography. I'm just here because I'm lonely and libertarian as well.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    If you're into cartoon fanart and pornography, or especially combinations thereof, the "lonely" part is inferred.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I dislike inference and strive for clarity of speech.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The libertarian part was also inferred as soon as I read 'fanart'.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I am but a simple a man.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Yeah, tell me about it... I get lots of different perspectives just from Libertarian Facebook groups!

    Libertarians on social media are like the old joke about Rabbis: Put three rabbis in a room and ask for their perspective on some passage in the Talmud and you'll get at least six different opinions, some of them quite vehemently expressed.

  • Mark22||

    Libertarians on social media are like the old joke about Rabbis: Put three rabbis in a room and ask for their perspective on some passage in the Talmud and you'll get at least six different opinions, some of them quite vehemently expressed.

    I consider that a good thing.

  • hello.||

    The diversity of opinion is truly staggering. For example, who should be the biggest beneficiary of massive welfare transfer payments, Mexicans or Muslims? Where should the federal budget be cut, Defense or Defense or maybe Defense? What should the monthly marijuana ration be?

  • Agammamon||

    If you use social media, you're more likely to get your news from more than one political perspective,

    I don't consider 16 image macros telling me how horrible Trump is and one barely coherent rant by racist grandpa to be actual, you know, *news* sources.

  • JFree||

    The problem with social media is not lack of diverse opinions. It is the lack of actual contact with actual people and the real world - and the resulting inability to judge what is actually important.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    One of the chief effects of using the site, after all, is to discover your ex-friends' horrifying opinions.

    FTFY

  • JeremyR||

    Well, the encounter with other viewpoints tends to be "So and such DESTROYS opposing political figure"

  • Aloysious||

    Bloom County.

    Very good, Jesse. Very, very good.

  • Mark22||

    This flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that says the internet segregates society into ever more cloistered communities of like-minded people.

    That "accepted wisdom" comes from the crony capitalists and purveyors of fake news at the WaPo and the NYT and serves the interests of their billionaire owners.

  • hello.||

    This flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that says the internet segregates society into ever more cloistered communities of like-minded people.

    Except that it fucking doesn't by your own admission 2 paragraphs later:

    As you can see, most Americans don't look at stories from more than one political perspective.

    You can read the same shit from as many different publications as you want and it doesn't mean aren't in a cloistered community of like-minded people Take the average Reason member, who reads HuffPo, Democratic Underground, Alternet, Salon, Jezebel and Buzzfeed as their exclusive sources of information.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Except that it fucking doesn't by your own admission 2 paragraphs later

    Read the first sentence you quoted again. It's about whether the internet segregates society into ever more cloistered ideological communities. There is no contradiction between "people self-segregate" and "people self-segregate less online."

    Or to quote the post, "Ideological bubbles are real, but ideological bubbles have always been real; they may well be more permeable now than in the past."

  • damikesc||

    Sorry, I don't buy this. At all. I need to see WHAT sites are looked at. There are Progs who think CNN is a right-wing operation.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Many of the sites are listed in the study, and it also explains how they sorted them (they "use the partisan composition of an outlet's audience as a proxy for its political leaning").

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