The Other Side of the Political Fence

Computer Monitor with Opposing Political Party Icons

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With customization, the internet has made it simple for users to ingest a steady diet of views that agree with their own. But according to research by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro , many people visit sites with content that does not reflect their political beliefs. In fact, they said, there is no evidence that the internet is becoming more politically segregated over time.

A healthy democracy depends on individuals encountering information that sometimes contradicts their pre-existing views. But the advent of technology has made it easier than ever for people to self-segregate, with political blogs and websites providing an “echo chamber” of content that isolates them from a larger worldview.

The internet is not becoming more ideologically segregated, however; in fact, it’s actually more integrated than face-to-face communication with neighbors and friends, so that people are more likely to encounter opposing political views online than in discussion with neighbors, co-workers, or family members, according to Matthew Gentzkow, professor of economics and Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow, and Jesse Shapiro, professor of economics and Robert King Steel Faculty Fellow. In “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline,” (pdf) they note that most people spend the majority of their time on such large centrist sites as Yahoo! News and

For each of 1,379 high-traffic news and politics websites, Gentzkow and Shapiro measured the share of readers who self-identified as liberal and the share who self-identified as conservative. Using data collected by ComScore, a web analytics firm, they gave each site a score based on which way its readers leaned politically. They discovered that the majority of people do not stay within their own ideological communities, but spend a lot of time on sites that have politically integrated audiences.

And even when users leave those sites, “they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves,” columnist David Brooks wrote about their research in the New York Times. “People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s website are more likely to visit the New York Times’s website than average internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to than average internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis travel far and wide across the web.

“They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat, and arousal.”

But, Gentzkow and Shapiro cautioned, “none of our evidence speaks to the way people translate the content they encounter into beliefs.” Brooks agreed. “It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate. But it probably does mean that they are not insecure and they are not sheltered,” he wrote, concluding, “The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and there is), it’s probably not the internet that’s causing it.”—P.H.

See a "treemap" based on this paper created by Slate 

Last Updated 11/19/10