Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Political Habits of Blog Readers...

With the ascendency of cable news and the internet as political forums over the past 15 years, the buzz-phrase, "echo chamber", has become a familiar description of how people gravitate towards TV shows and websites that accord with their existing political beliefs. The thinking has been that liberals frequent liberal media outlets, and conservatives follow those that are conservative, as a means of reinforcing their positions, ultimately leading to people becoming more firmly entrenched in their views, and also, consequently, more polarized.

But is this characterization of political echo chambers accurate?

There is plenty of research in support of it. Most recently, in an article by Eric Lawrence, John Sides, and Henry Farrell titled, "Self-Segregation or Deliberation? Blog Readership, Participation, and Polarization in American Politics", in the Perspectives on Politics academic journal, new data is presented that demonstrates the following...

  1. Blog readers do, indeed, gravitate towards blogs that accord with their own political beliefs.

  2. Few read blogs on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum.

  3. Those who read left-wing blogs and those who read right-wing blogs are ideologically far apart.

  4. Blog readers are more polarized than either non-blog-readers or consumers of various television news programs, and roughly as polarized as U.S. senators.

  5. Blog readers also participate more in politics than non-blog-readers.

  6. Readers of both left- and right-wing blogs and readers of exclusively left-wing blogs participate at similar levels, and both participate more than readers of exclusively right-wing blogs.

It's this type of data that has led pundits like David Brooks of the New York Times to wonder if, instead of a public square, we could end up with a collection of information cocoons, and others like Cass Sunstein to question whether the internet is really a blessing for democracy at all.

However, another recent study contradicts those findings, and with it, the conventional wisdom. Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, both of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, published a recent study on ideological segregation and found that, yes, a person who visited only Fox News would have more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of internet news users, and a person who only went to The New York Times’s site would have more liberal overlap than 95 percent of users. But the core finding is that most internet users do not stay within their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.

Even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the Web.

It is so easy to click over to another site that people travel widely. And they’re not even following links most of the time; they have their own traveling patterns.

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association — like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups. You’re more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood.

This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate. But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not sheltered...

If there is increased polarization (and there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.

Blog readers as "ideological Jack Kerouacs"?! That fabulous line is nothing short of a complete re-characterization of this entire political dynamic.

I suppose the thing to take away from all of this, besides just a few interesting talking points for cocktail parties, is that the jury is still out. The truth is that there is indeed a "paucity" of research on political blogs, and a primary task for academics will be to understand the causal impact of reading them. But certainly, we should at least question our basic assumptions on this topic.


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