Partisan Politics and the Social Media

I was listening to NPR Radio this morning, but couldn’t find the audio on NPR’s site. They were discussing how the masses were choosing to receive their daily news based on their political ideology, and finding a comfort level in hearing broadcasters who reflected their viewpoints. According to the NPR reporter, this trend is affecting politics by inciting politicians towards more extreme, egregious messaging in order to engage their constituency. For example, an anti-immigration congressman may say something impractical, like building a wall along the Mexican border to metaphorically engage with a constituency affected by illegal alien labor.

Most people can see this political divide in the mass media as Fox vs. MSNBC, WSJ vs. NYT. The social media only makes these ideological media walls more compartmentalized because any viewpoint now has a voice. One can now consume media from chosen sources that only fit the way they think and view the world.

Then, friend Joe Pryor alerted me to a NYT article that first acknowledges the worrisome trend that people are starting to “live in partisan ghettoes, ignorant about the other side”. It analyzes a study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business that measured ideological segregation on the Internet, and the conclusions are revealing:

The methodology is complicated, but can be summarized through a geographic metaphor. Think of the Fox News site as Casper, Wyo. If you visited and shook hands with the people reading the site, you’d be very likely to be shaking hands with a conservative. The New York Times site, they suggest, is like Manhattan. If you shook hands with other readers, you’d probably be shaking hands with liberals.

The study measures the people who visit sites, not the content inside.

According to the study, a person who visited only Fox News would have more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of Internet news users. A person who only went to The Times’s site would have more liberal overlap than 95 percent of users.

But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.

But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com than average Internet users.

In fact, I always liked the idea that Joe, who I could assume was Oklahoma conservative, was always sending me New York Times articles. And I in fact, enjoy watching Fox News just to see them punch holes in our local congresswoman Nancy Pelosi; you learn a lot. The conclusion is if the world is becoming more secularized, it’s not the internet to blame.

About Pat Kitano

Patrick Kitano works with brands in developing hyperlocal engagement solutions and is administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is the author of The Local Network on Street Fight, and is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email pkitano@gmail.com.

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