Does social media actually impact how we consume news?

Center for Data Science fellow Andrew Guess tackles “echo chambers”

As part of his research, Guess analyzed consumption of media by self-identified Republicans and Democrats

Commentators have made heavy weather of how social media has affected people’s consumption of news. Just recently, journalists have proposed that the circulation of fake news articles on Facebook played a major role in producing the startling election of Donald J. Trump as the country’s next President. The general belief is that social media causes users to exist in an echo chamber where they only consume news that reflects their point of view and that of their friends, who are also likely to share similar viewpoints. But according to Andrew Guess, a Moore-Sloan fellow at CDS, most people’s consumption of online news media is remarkably moderate.

To test the claim that social media causes users to consume articles that already agree with their own political inclinations, Guess combines data on people’s website visits with their individual-level political leanings in his recently published paper, “Media Choice and Moderation: Evidence from Online Tracking Data.”

Guess uses data collected by online polling firm YouGov, together with a web tracking service called Wakoopa that was installed by consenting participants in his research. Guess also used YouGov’s individual-level survey responses, which contained demographic information like gender, age, race, and political affiliation.

Next, Guess determined the “ideological slant” of the websites visited by assigning each web domain an alignment score of how left or right-leaning it was. This score is based on the average self-reported ideology of Facebook users who shared content from that domain. For example, Fox News might earn a right-leaning alignment score because the main ideology of people sharing Fox News content is Republican.

After assigning each web domain with a political alignment score, Guess calculated the number of times a person visited a web domain and how long they spent there, and then determined each respondent’s “average media slant”. Guess discovered that the majority of Facebook users visited moderate sites such as CNN, MSN, or Yahoo! News, regardless of whether the respondent was a democrat or republican.

“The results show a remarkable degree of balance in respondents’ overall media diets regardless of partisan affiliation. Whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, the large bulk of these individuals’ media diets cluster around the center of the ideological spectrum,” Guess stated. While there were some respondents who, indeed, visited websites on the extreme ends of the ideological slant spectrum (such as right-leaning Breitbart or the leftist Daily Kos) these were only of a small number.

During a time where many feel America is becoming more divided, Guess’ research comes as a surprise. If democrats and republicans both, indeed, consume the same moderate news articles on social media, then Trump’s political rise may be propelled by other factors that have yet to be explored.

by Daniel Tay


Originally published at cds.nyu.edu on November 15, 2016.

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