Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Broken Echo

As I discovered a few weeks ago, some of the political views I hold are unorthodox compared to others in my social circle on Facebook. But that my views attracted both praise and scorn is anecdotal evidence that supports findings released this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that says participants in social networks aren’t necessarily participating in echo chambers in which they’re friends only with those who share the same political views.

The study, which sampled roughly 2,200 adults earlier this year, shows that for those on the extreme ends of the spectrum – both liberal and conservative – the echo chamber may be stronger than for others, but for the vast majority of people who lie on the center or more toward the center than to the fringe, their chances of encountering people with opposing viewpoints isn’t unheard of and is, in fact, quite common.

This leads Pew to come up with this not-so-startling observation: Most people form social networks based on factors other than political ideology. Yeah. Like families (where we have political thought of all stripes) and school mates and friends and acquaintances and such. Social networks, then, mirror real life, not some imagined reality. No surprise there.

What’s more surprising is this:

Some 37% of [social networking site] users who exchange material about politics on the sites have gotten strong negative reactions when they posted political material and 63% have never experienced such reactions. Interestingly enough, there is no notable variance across the political spectrum on this question. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, and conservatives among SNS users have experienced the same level of challenge from their SNS friends.

So what’s going on? According to Pew, most respondents say that if they read something from their friends that they don’t agree with, they simply ignore the comment. Only a small fringe of again those on the extremes of the spectrum got to the point that they hid content or de-friended someone because of their opposing political beliefs.

Does this mean that those who responded to my post are in the extremes of the political spectrum? Probably not. It’s too small of a sample to even hazard a guess. What I suspect is going on here is something that Pew also noted: Many SNS participants are surprised to learn that a friend’s position on the political spectrum is different than what he or she suspected.

Another interesting bit: Comments made by family and close friends that were in opposition to one’s political belief were most often ignored, while those made by only casual acquaintances were most often commented on and most often accompanied by consequences such as hiding posts and de-friending. Interesting, but not really surprising. We’re much more willing to put up with lumps and defects in those close to us than we are in those we know only distantly. That’s an echo chamber of sorts, but not as echoey as some have worried about.

The report is available online from Pew here. Of course, some of the more unhinged are ranting about this too.

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