Politics

Social media “filter bubbles” aren’t actually a thing, research suggests

A popular meme of the last few years is the social media “filter bubble” — the idea that services like Facebook and Twitter serve to reinforce users’ biases by feeding them content with which they are already inclined to agree.

This theory has been widely applied to politics, and of course linked to so-called fake news which further polarizes an already politically divided population.

A new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, however, argues that the “filter bubble” theory doesn’t actually pan out.

Brown University’s Jesse Shapiro and Stanford University’s Matthew Gentzkow — both economics professors — report that “the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.” Their work is drawn from analyses of American National Election Studies, which are jointly produced by Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

Gentzkow and Shapiro stress in the paper, “Is the Internet Causing Political Polarization? Evidence from Demographics,” that it is possible social media can further polarize people. But people who don’t use the internet are already the most polarized, which suggests that the internet and social media aren’t a cause for extreme religious or political beliefs.

The nine measures by which the researchers tracked polarization include extreme attitudes and behaviors regarding religiosity, partisan affiliation, and perception of the beliefs of political parties. According to Gentzkow and Shapiro, age appears to be more closely linked to political polarization than internet or social media usage.

“For every measure, except religious polarization, we see that the oldest age group experiences larger changes in polarization than the youngest age group,” the researchers said. “In four of the nine measures, young adults actually experience declines in polarization while the other age groups experience large increases.”

Facebook and other social media services have long denied that “filter bubbles” are a real thing. Last July, Mark Zuckerberg told investors that “it’s a good sounding theory, and I can get why people repeat it, but it’s not true.”

Of course, it’s pretty convenient for social media companies to deny that social media is exacerbating the effects of political and societal polarization, and it’s possible that the impact of social media on polarization is largely concentrated among the young, if it exists. This is where cable news possibly comes in.

Previous research has connected polarization and cable news viewership. And because that the most extreme cable news outlet — Fox News — is also the channel with the oldest audience, it’s possible that TV is having the impact on polarization that has been more popularly ascribed to social media over the last few years. Matthew Gentzkow, in an interview with VICE News, affirmed that “cable television is a big part of this story.”

“We’re talking so much about what’s happening with social media and the internet that people forget that TV remains the main way that people get news about politics in this country,” Gentzkow said. “It’s the one that the majority of people say is the most important source, and that’s particularly true for older Americans.”

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