A new study suggests that social media, by its very nature, makes it seem like more Americans are moving toward extreme political views than actually are — because those with more moderate political views are simply staying silent.
“We are not necessarily getting farther and farther apart — it’s just the people in the middle are becoming more quiet and withdrawn,” said Michael Kearney, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
For example, Twitter users with more extreme political beliefs tend to form highly partisan social networks, while users with more moderate political views are often avoiding politics altogether, potentially creating a critical void on social media.
So with the ability now to follow only those who argue one side, the voices of people who are in the middle, disinterested in politics or who use social media solely for entertainment, are getting drowned out amidst the political noise.
“If you fail to consider all the people in the middle who do not care about politics as much, it seems like there is a more clear division when there is not, so social media might be artificially creating this sense that we are becoming more polarized,” said Kearney.
Kearney found that rather than increasing exposure to diverse viewpoints or sheltering users with self-reinforcing filter bubbles, social media simply amplifies and reflects the trends found in broader media environments.
The study is the first of its kind to look at change in real-time behaviors of political polarization by analyzing who Twitter users choose to follow during a general election.
Using software that he developed himself, Kearney analyzed the user networks of 3,000 random followers of well-known partisan and entertainment-oriented accounts. Data was collected over six months leading up the 2016 general election, beginning shortly after Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became the two major party nominees.
The study shows that as the election drew closer, Democrats followed more Democrats, Republicans followed more Republicans, and moderates did not greatly expand who they followed on either political side.
“Whenever using Twitter or any type of social media, it is important to double-check and validate the information you are receiving,” Kearney said. “Twitter allows us to connect with a lot of people and gain access to information, but users should not assume that the information is representative or an accurate reflection of the public.”
Source: University of Missouri-Columbia