COLUMBIA, Mo. — Political polarization in the United States is far from news, but a study by researchers at the University of Missouri finds that the social media platform Twitter may be artificially exaggerating the widening political divide, with moderates suffering as a result. Users are free to customize their news feeds with only accounts and opinions that coincide with their own, creating an echo chamber effect that contributes to perceived polarization and disagreement.
According to researchers, this is causing political moderates to lose their voice on Twitter; those who aren’t as interested in politics, or simply use Twitter as a form of entertainment, are being drowned out by those on both ends of the political spectrum.
Highly partisan users tend to coalesce around each other, forming partisan social networks on Twitter. Meanwhile, moderate users and individuals who aren’t as politically engaged avoid political talk, potentially creating a void of moderate political viewpoints on the popular social media platform.
“We are not necessarily getting farther and farther apart – it’s just the people in the middle are becoming more quiet and withdrawn,” says Michael Kearney, assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, in a media release. “If you fail to consider all the people in the middle who do not care about politics as much, it seems like there is a more clear division when there is not, so social media might be artificially creating this sense that we are becoming more polarized.”
Kearney and his team don’t believe that social media platforms, in this case Twitter, are purposely shielding users from different viewpoints. Instead, they believe all social media is a reflection of broader trends in the greater media environment.
This was the first study of its kind to examine political polarization in real time by observing who Twitter users chose to follow during the 2016 presidential election.
Using software he developed himself, Kearney examined 3,000 random Twitter users who were following well-known entertainment and partisan Twitter accounts. Data collection started shortly after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became their party’s nominees, and lasted for six months leading up to the presidential election. Over time, Democrats tended to follow more Democrats on Twitter, and Republicans followed more Republicans. Moderates, however, didn’t significantly expand who they followed on either side.
“Whenever using Twitter or any type of social media, it is important to double check and validate the information you are receiving,” Kearney says. “Twitter allows us to connect with a lot of people and gain access to information, but users should not assume that the information is representative or an accurate reflection of the public.”
The study is published in the journal New Media & Society.