Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption is a new peer-reviewed study by Brent Kitchens, Steven L. Johnson, and Peter Gray, recently published in MIS Quarterly, a journal that focuses on the IT field. Here's a brief summary of their process:
Using a data set with over four years of web browsing history for a representative panel of nearly 200,000 U.S. adults, we analyzed how individuals' social media usage was associated with changes in the information sources they chose to consume. We find differentiated impacts on news consumption by platform. Increased use of Facebook was associated with increased information source diversity and a shift toward more partisan sites in news consumption; increased use of Reddit with increased diversity and a shift toward more moderate sites; and increased use of Twitter with little to no change in either. Our results demonstrate the value of adopting a nuanced multidimensional view of how social media use may shape information consumption.
The authors explained some of their research and findings more in-depth in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post (the actual paper is paywalled):
Facebook and Reddit shape the news consumption of their conservative users in dramatically different ways. In months when a typical conservative visited Facebook more than usual, they read news that was about 30 percent more conservative than the online news they usually read. In contrast, during months when a typical conservative used Reddit more than usual, they read news that was far less conservative — about 50 percent more moderate than what they typically read.
Why would Facebook lead conservatives to read more polarized news sites and Reddit to more politically moderate ones? The answer may lie in three ways their algorithms differ — namely, how they consider social networks, topical interests and engagement history.
The authors go on to essentially argue that the inherent flaw in Facebook lies in its reliance on social networks — you have to choose to add people you know, presumably in real life, and the people you know in real life are probably going to be people who already agree with you, or otherwise have something in common. "This minimizes the chances of seeing content from people with more diverse, opinion-challenging viewpoints," they explain. (Though I'd argue that, at least within my Facebook Bubble, everyone has some relative or family friend who spouts off radically different political views; unfortunately, in my experience, the links they share are less "opinion-challenging" and more "generic hyperbolic right-wing propaganda.")
By contrast, Reddit unites people by common interests. And while both Reddit and Facebook push you towards popular content, they have different ways of qualifying "popularity." Since Facebook relies on "engagement," rather than a manual upvote/downvote system, the end result is that popular posts tend to be the ones that inspire extreme emotional reactions … which, of course, tend to be polarizing.
Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption [Brent Kitchens, Steven L. Johnson, and Peter Gray / MIS Quarterly]
Facebook serves as an echo chamber, especially for conservatives. Blame its algorithm. [Brent Kitchens, Steven L. Johnson, and Peter Gray / Washington Post]
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