Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shattering the Myth of the 'Daily Me'

I read an interesting study today that challenges the notion that folks who get their news online are more likely to seek out news that aligns with their political ideology than those who get their news from traditional sources such as newspaper, television, and word of mouth.

The study, available for download here, was done by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, both from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and was released on April 12 this year.

I won't go into the details here; I'll leave that to Mssrs Gentzkow and Shapiro, but I will say it looks as if they approached this in a logical and statistically defensible way -- in other words, I think they're unbiased and did their work well within the realms of statistic acceptability.

They begin with the supposition -- the old saw, actually -- that the Internet is moving us towards the phenomenon known either as the echo chamber or the Daily Me, in which the news we consume is aligned with either our liberal or conservative ideologies. In other words, conservatives will go to Fox News or other more extreme sites with conservative bents and consume news there and only there, while liberals do the same thing, but on the other side of the spectrum.

What they found out is this:
News consumption online is far from perfectly segregated. The average Internet news consumer's exposure to conservatives is 57 percent, slightly to the left of the US adult population. The average conservative's exposure is 60.6 percent, similar to a person who gets all her news from usatoday.com. The average liberal's exposure is 53.1 percent, similar to a person who gets all her news from cnn.com. The isolation index for the Internet is 7.5 percentage points, the difference between the average conservative's exposure and the average liberal's exposure.
In comparing this isolation index -- the higher the number, the more likely the person is to get news that already aligns with their personal political ideologies -- puts the Internet at about the center of the news sources the study looked at. The index for broadcast news, magazines and local newspapers was lower than for the Internet, while national newspapers, voluntary associations, work, family and "people you trust" scored higher on the index -- meaning that people who rely on family, work associates and people they trust are more likely to get news that aligns with their political beliefs, while those who get their news on the Internet or from local papers or broadcast television were getting a better balance of news.

More interestingly, the study shows that people with more extreme political views are more likely -- not less likely -- to seek out news from the opposite ideology:
Much of the previous discussion of Internet segregation has focused on the "long tail" of political blogs, news aggregators, and activist sites. We confirm that these sites are often ideologically extreme, but find that they account for a very small share of online consumption. Second, a significant share of consumers get news from multiple outlets. This is especially true for visitors to small sites such as blogs and aggregators. Visitors of extreme conservative sites such as rushlimbaugh.com and glennbeck.com are more likely than a typical online news reader to have visited nytimes.com. Visitors of extreme liberal sites such as thinkprogress.org and moveon.org are more likely than a typical online news reader to have visited foxnews.com.
The study does include one caveat: "[N]one of the evidence here speaks to the way people translate the content they encounter into beliefs. People with different ideologies see similar content, but . . . [various mechanisms] may lead people with divergent political views to interpret the same information differently." This is a significant caveat, since how information consumed is interpreted and incorporated -- or left out -- of our political ideologies is significantly more important than if we're exposed to different points of view on the same information.

But that cross-ideological reading is occurring is significant, despite the fact that we have no way of knowing, through this study at least, if such exposure to opposite political views does anything to alter one's held beliefs. But one cannot argue, looking at this study, that the Internet is leading more people to seek only the kind of news they already agree with.
To take an even more extreme example, visitors to stormfront.org, a "discussion board for pro-White activists and anyone else interested in White survival," are twice as likely as visitors to Yahoo! News to visit nytimes.com in the same month. This pattern of cross-visiting contrasts with the image of online "echo chambers" where users are never exposed to opposite perspectives.

The Internet makes it easy to consume news from multiple sources. Of course, many people do get news from only one source, but these tend to be light users, and their sole source tends to be one of the large relatively centrist outlets. Most of the people who visit sites like drudgereport.com or huffingtonpost.com, by contrast, are heavy Internet users, likely with a strong interest in politics. Although their political views are relatively extreme, they also tend to consume more of everything, including centrist sites and occasionally sites with conflicting ideology. Their omnivorous outweighs their ideological extremity, preventing their overall news diet from becoming too skewed.
So people who get their news from the Internet more than from people they trust -- and this is interpreted as people they can talk with face-to-face -- have a better chance of being exposed to opposite political ideology. That explains how Pauline Kael could exclaim: "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know a single person who voted for him." That was in 1968, the year Nixon won 60 percent of the popular vote, to George McGovern's 37 percent.

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