Rather than expanding or challenging our current political opinions and beliefs, the Internet seems to be contributing to political narrow-mindedness through a process called “selective exposure.”
This is the tendency to seek information that confirms an existing perspective while avoiding contrary information.
“We tend to look for information that confirms our points of view,” said Ivan Dylko, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo and an expert in political communication and communication technology effects.
“It bolsters self-esteem, helps us effectively cope with political information overload, but on the other hand, it means we’re minimizing exposure to information that challenges us. Technology allows us to customize our online information environment.”
Dylko has developed a model, published in the journal Communication Theory, which explores how the “automatic and consistent inclusion, exclusion and presentation of information” encourages political selective exposure.
It seems almost counterintuitive that the information age would lead to selective exposure. After all, newspaper readers once had to decide which local paper to read, just as magazine buyers had to choose between Time and Newsweek, for example. We still choose which TV station to watch and with whom to associate.
But “customizability” appears to be the key factor that separates past print, broadcast, and face-to-face interactions from present online communication realities.
Users now have an unprecedented amount of information to deal with. This actually forces readers to be more selective than ever. They are able to find content that matches their beliefs and attitudes more closely than ever, and they have customizability technology providing nearly complete control over the information they receive.
“In a two-newspaper town, readers still might look at the rival paper in addition to their favored publication because the newspaper choices were relatively limited, but online readers can find and then spend hours looking only at content that perfectly fits their psychological and political preferences,” Dylko said.
Facebook, for example, is built on customizability. Users add and remove friends, events, and groups from their environment while the site analyzes all of this activity and determines what personal news cycle to present. The same is true of Twitter and numerous other popular websites.
Customizability has been explored in marketing, information science, and educational psychology, but has not been deeply analyzed in political communication.
“Technologies often have unintended consequences,” Dylko said. “The model published in Communication Theory describes how these customizability technologies, initially designed to help us cope with information overload, lead to detrimental political effects. Specifically, they increase political selective exposure, making us more surrounded with like-minded information and, potentially, making us more politically polarized.”
Source: University at Buffalo