There is a justifiable fear that the splintering of news sources, first by cable television networks and then by the Internet, is leading many people to live in ideological bubbles, with little access to arguments from opposing political ideologies. While such self-siloing is clearly a problem, a new study suggests the situation isn't as dire as we might think.
The news diets of the most liberal and most conservative Americans "generally [show] more overlap than divergence," a New York University research team led by Gregory Eady and Jonathan Nagler writes in the journal Sage Open. These findings refute the simple idea of "echo chambers in which the majority of people's sources of news are mutually exclusive, and from opposite poles."
The researchers analyzed the Twitter accounts of a representative survey of 1,496 Americans, noting every account that each of them follows (642,345 in all). They then divided the respondents into five groups by ideology, focusing primarily on the 20 percent who were most conservative, and the 20 percent who were most liberal.
They found major differences in media consumption—but also a lot of commonalities.
"More than a third of respondents do not follow any media sources," they write. "But among those who do, we find a substantial amount of overlap—51 percent—in the ideological distributions of accounts followed by users on opposite ends of the political spectrum."
Just over 60 percent of those in the most-conservative category followed "very few media accounts even as far 'left' as the New York Times," the researchers report. Still, 45 percent of that group "did report watching TV news from either a mainstream or a left-leaning network," meaning they were exposed to news from a more mainstream perspective.
In addition, the researchers discovered "a relatively moderating effect of incidental exposure to retweets, resulting in more conservative information environments for liberal users and more liberal ones for conservative users, on average." This effect "appears robust and substantial," they add.
So our bubbles are actually pretty permeable.
The researchers also found "asymmetries in individuals' willingness to venture into cross-cutting spaces, with conservatives more likely to follow media and political accounts classified as left-leaning than the reverse."
That is somewhat surprising, given that conservatives are widely characterized as craving certainty. The researchers suspect this crossover is driven in part by the fact that right-wing news outlets tend to be heavy on opinion and light on original news reporting.
"Conservatives with a taste for both traditionally reported news and congenial opinion may need to sample more widely than liberals with analogous tastes," the authors write.
This crossover, while encouraging, has its limits: Two-thirds of the most conservative respondents, but only 15 percent of the most liberal, were exposed to Fox News. Seventy-eight percent of the most liberal were exposed to MSNBC, compared to only 22 percent of the most conservative.
"Large portions of the most liberal and conservative users never see what the other side is saying‚—how they are reacting to that news and information, and what they find to be most important," they write.
That helps explain why liberal and conservative Americans seem to be living in two different worlds. Few of us have a good sense of what people on the other side of the divide are focusing on, exploring, or debating.
That information is a valuable thing in itself, especially given our increasing tendency to live in ideologically homogeneous neighborhoods. Forming consensus may be out of reach at the moment, but striving for a bit more understanding is a worthy goal—one that can be realized simply by tweaking your Twitter account.