Political polarization on media

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans at least occasionally receive news from social media.[180] Because of algorithms on social media that filter and display news content which are likely to match their users’ political preferences, a potential impact of receiving news from social media includes an increase in political polarization due to selective exposure.[181] Political polarization refers to when an individual’s stance on a topic is more likely to be strictly defined by their identification with a specific political party or ideology than on other factors. Selective exposure occurs when an individual favors information that supports their beliefs and avoids information that conflicts with their beliefs. A study by Hayat and Samuel-Azran conducted during the 2016 U.S. presidential election observed an “echo chamber” effect of selective exposure among 27,811 Twitter users following the content of cable news shows.[181] The Twitter users observed in the study were found to have little interaction with users and content whose beliefs were different from their own, possibly heightening polarization effects.[181][182]

Efforts to combat selective exposure in social media may also cause an increase in political polarization.[183] A study examining Twitter activity conducted by Bail et al. paid Democrat and Republican participants to follow Twitter handles whose content was different from their political beliefs (Republicans received liberal content and Democrats received conservative content) over a six-week period.[183] At the end of the study, both Democrat and Republican participants were found to have increased political polarization in favor of their own parties, though only Republican participants had an increase that was statistically significant. 

Though research has shown evidence that social media plays a role in increasing political polarization, it has also shown evidence that social media use leads to a persuasion of political beliefs.[184][185] An online survey consisting of 1,024 U.S. participants was conducted by Diehl, Weeks, and Gil de Zuñiga, which found that individuals who use social media were more likely to have their political beliefs persuaded than those who did not.[184] In particular, those using social media as a means to receive their news were the most likely to have their political beliefs changed.[184] Diehl et al. found that the persuasion reported by participants was influenced by the exposure to diverse viewpoints they experienced, both in the content they saw as well as the political discussions they participated in.[184] Similarly, a study by Hardy and colleagues conducted with 189 students from a Midwestern state university examined the persuasive effect of watching a political comedy video on Facebook.[185] Hardy et al. found that after watching a Facebook video of the comedian/political commentator John Oliver performing a segment on his show, participants were likely to be persuaded to change their viewpoint on the topic they watched (either payday lending or the Ferguson protests) to one that was closer to the opinion expressed by Oliver.[185] Furthermore, the persuasion experienced by the participants was found to be reduced if they viewed comments by Facebook users which contradicted the arguments made by Oliver.[185]

Research has also shown that social media use may not have an effect on polarization at all.[186] A U.S. national survey of 1,032 participants conducted by Lee et al. found that participants who used social media were more likely to be exposed to a diverse number of people and amount of opinion than those who did not, although using social media was not correlated with a change in political polarization for these participants.[186]

In a study examining the potential polarizing effects of social media on the political views of its users, Mihailidis and Viotty suggest that a new way of engaging with social media must occur to avoid polarization.[187] The authors note that media literacies (described as methods which give people skills to critique and create media) are important to using social media in a responsible and productive way, and state that these literacies must be changed further in order to have the most effectiveness.[187] In order to decrease polarization and encourage cooperation among social media users, Mihailidis and Viotty suggest that media literacies must focus on teaching individuals how to connect with other people in a caring way, embrace differences, and understand the ways in which social media has a real impact on the political, social, and cultural issues of the society they are a part of.[187]

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