Customizable political news content a danger to democracy, study claims

BUFFALO — It’s no secret that political news junkies typically frequent the websites that tend to support the party they associate with, and customize their social media feeds so that the headlines they see come from such outlets. Yet a recent study claims that sites that allow you to pick-and-choose the content you read based on your leaning are actually hurting American democracy.

Ivan Dylko, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo and expert on the effects of communication technology on politics, studied the political effects of customizability — a now-ubiquitous technology that personalizes the subject matter of content on a given information site.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google News all use this technology to sort through news and opinion pieces to deliver information that they deem useful to their users.

Person reading newspaper
(Photo by on Unsplash)

The problem, according to Dylko and his team, is that people are relying on these customizability platforms for all of their news and information. This is creating a space where informed, challenging debate is increasingly difficult.

The study found that most political websites that either customize content for each user automatically or allow the user to create personalized content profiles increase the tendency of users to only consume information that fits in with their political ideologies. The researchers found that this effect was particularly acute in those with moderate political ideologies.

“The increasingly popular personalization tools are likely to lead to a situation where we are surrounded by like-minded information that creates skewed perception of reality, incorrect beliefs, extreme attitudes and suboptimal political behavior,” explains Dylko in a university media release.

Dylko enlisted Igor Dolgov, associate professor psychology at New Mexico State University, and his team of graduate and post-graduate students for the study. They gave a select group of study participants a political survey to determine their individual political leanings. The subjects were then randomly assigned one of four different political websites with liberal and conservative content.

Each site had a different method of aggregating and curating personalized content: a user-customizable site, a system-customizable site on which the researchers manipulated content  based on survey responses, a hybrid of the first two customizable sites, and a non-customizable site. The researchers recorded the links clicked and the time spent reading each article.

“We found that presence of customizability technology increased consumption of pro-attitudinal information and decreased consumption of counter-attitudinal information,” says Dylko.

He added that this phenomenon is known to increase the polarization of political thought. In essence, using customizable news and opinion sites creates information bubbles that are difficult to disturb and challenge.

“That’s not good for a healthy democracy,” he says. “Living in ideological cocoons prevents cross-fertilization of political ideas, undermines civil political discourse, and hurts the quality of decision making in political context.”

As for what could be done to help alleviate the problem, Dylko says search engines and social media sites should consider ensuring visitors are exposed to news from all corners of the political arena.

“We hope decision makers behind websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and other key gatekeepers of political information will take note of the unintended harm their services might be inflicting on our society and try to mitigate this harm technologically,” he says.

Of course, news consumers should also consider how websites may feature slanted content and be open to other mediums, Dylko adds.

“We all should be more alert to how information algorithms might inadvertently negatively affect us,” he continues, “and try to break out of the comfortable information bubbles each of us has created on various online news and social media platforms.”

Dylko and his team published their study in August in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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Ben Renner

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  1. Actually you are referring to democrats. For the most part non-democrats view a wide variety of news sources, and that is how we can see clearly how tainted and skewed the liberal democratic biased media actually lies. In reality news should not state bias when reading the news. But the problem for the most part in anti-Trump Derangement Syndrome, and editors trying to create news (AKA fake news)

  2. Problem is, I don’t want to read viewpoints of anti-American socialists. I don’t even want to be in the same room liberals are in. The kind of country they want is opposite what I want for America. So why the hell would I want to read anything supportive of their worldview? I’m sure the same goes for liberals. They want a socialist country, hate the Constitution, and want to repeal the Second Amendment for starters. Why would they take the time to read anything that doesn’t agree with their worldview?

    I don’t see the two sides ever coming together. Perhaps if the public education system didn’t exist solely to turn out reliable democrat voters, then maybe America would have a shot at coming together.

    1. I don’t want to read viewpoints of anti-American socialists. I don’t even want to be in the same room liberals are in

      Hell, I’ll do you one better. I’d like to be back on an artillery crew pumping shells to known locations of leftist lie-berals.

  3. You know what else hurts democracy – news organizations that think its responsible journalism to focus more on a white truck blocking a reporter’s view of Trump at a golf course than Iran protests. So when this occurs you bet I’ll filter my news feeds to get relevant information.

  4. It seems to me that it would helpful for “moderates” to be able to have more impartial news sources, and not have to choose between those identifiably “rightist” or “leftist”, but the increasing polarization in our society overall seems to be suppressing any such sources. Although that assault on civility and balance has been mostly from the left in the past, the pro-Trump right appears to be pushing back in corresponding overkill fashion (to match the increasing leftist nastiness), and which has little to do with any definable ideology, and more to do with Trump’s opportunistic ego.

    I tend to the “conservative” side, but that is based on older notions that recognize the total amorality and capriciousness of Trump, as well the usual suspects on the left. However, I also am as skeptical of big business (having worked there about 35 of my 50 working years before
    retiring) as I am of big government and other institutions. I do not confuse big enterprise with free enterprise with the way that Political Correctness has come to dominate the big businesses that cozy up to whomever is in power, whether Republican or Democrat (both in Congress) to push both their money-making goals and newfound PC morality that we can see “blended” so well in the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, etc.

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