Why selective exposure to like-minded congenial political news is less prevalent than you think
By Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler
With critics decrying the “echo chambers,” “filter bubbles,” and “information cocoons” created by the rise of online news and social media, you’d think that the entire American public was consuming a near-exclusive diet of politically pleasing news.
Voters do increasingly face an information glut that requires them to make choices about what news to consume. In these polarized times, it may therefore seem intuitive that people will overwhelmingly select into or be directed toward media and information flows that confirm their pre-existing biases, further reinforcing those views.
A deep dive into the academic literature tells us that the “echo chambers” narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public. Indeed, this claim itself has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect.
The popular press, in particular, has made sweeping claims about the prevalence and effects of “echo chambers” and similar phenomena. For instance, an editorial at The Independent declared after the 2016 election that “Social media echo chambers gifted Donald Trump the presidency,” while a Wired article claimed “Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy.”
However, these claims are vastly overstated. A deep dive into the academic literature tells us that the “echo chambers” narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public. Indeed, this claim itself has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect.
The data suggest that the situation is more nuanced. In controlled experiments, people do prefer congenial information over uncongenial information — a tendency that is especially prevalent in the domain of politics. People also tend to self-report a filtered media diet.
But studies that actually track people’s behavior tell a different story. On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks’ Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers.
Online news audience data tells a similar story. For instance, Breitbart ranked as only the 281st most trafficked site in the United States in April 2017. By comparison, The Washington Post and The New York Times ranked in the top 40 sites by traffic. All are dwarfed by sites dedicated to entertainment and shopping.
Others may point to social media as facilitating echo chambers, but the evidence on this point is limited. First, the proportion of the public that gets news on these platforms is frequently overstated. Only a small percentage of the population is on Twitter, for example. It is also difficult to study the problem of algorithmic personalization and the extent to which it creates filter bubbles because data from search and social media platforms — and the algorithms themselves — are largely proprietary. In the most notable study, Facebook researchers estimated that the News Feed algorithm reduced exposure to cross-cutting material for users who self-identify as conservative or liberal by 5 and 8 percent, respectively. However, only about 4 percent of users include their political preferences in their profile, making it difficult to generalize.
Perhaps counterintuitively, there’s more evidence for “echo chambers” in real life than online. One recent experiment shows that people who do not consume partisan media themselves, but instead discuss it with those who do, form opinions comparable to direct consumers. This indirect effect can even be larger than the direct effect of media exposure for those situated in homogeneous discussion groups, which combine information reinforcement and social pressure.
Why, then, does the narrative of technology-fueled echo chambers continue to hold sway? One reason is that polarized media consumption is much more common among an important segment of the public — the most politically active, knowledgeable, and engaged. This group is disproportionately visible online and in public life.
Of course, we would not claim that all is well with American media. Though the phenomena of selective exposure and echo chambers are less widespread than feared, the potential for a balkanized future remains. Moreover, the content of the media that people consume still matters. Even if echo chambers are not widespread, partisan media can still disseminate misinformation and increase animosity toward the other party among a highly visible and influential subset of the population. In this sense, the danger is not that all of us are living in echo chambers but that a subset of the most politically engaged and vocal among us are.
“Avoiding the Echo Chamber about Echo Chambers: Why selective exposure to like-minded political news is less prevalent than you think” is part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Read the complete paper and learn more about what we know and don’t about echo chambers.
Andrew Guess is an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
Benjamin Lyons is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter.
Brendan Nyhan is a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Jason Reifler is a professor of political science at the University of Exeter.