To what extent do social media users inhabit online echo chambers? Overall, we find that it might be less than you think; our research concludes that there is no evidence for a strict characterization of echo chambers in which people’s news sources are mutually exclusive and ideologically opposite.
Eady, Gregory, Jonathan Nagler, Andy Guess, Jan Zilinsky, and Joshua A. Tucker. “How Many People Live in Political Bubbles on Social Media? Evidence from Linked Survey and Twitter Data.” SAGE Open 9, no. 1 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019832705
Feb 28, 2019
Area of Study
A major point of debate in the study of the Internet and politics is the extent to which social media platforms encourage citizens to inhabit online “bubbles” or “echo chambers,” exposed primarily to ideologically congenial political information. To investigate this question, we link a representative survey of Americans with data from respondents’ public Twitter accounts (N = 1,496). We then quantify the ideological distributions of users’ online political and media environments by merging validated estimates of user ideology with the full set of accounts followed by our survey respondents (N = 642,345) and the available tweets posted by those accounts (N ~ 1.2 billion). We study the extent to which liberals and conservatives encounter counter-attitudinal messages in two distinct ways: (a) by the accounts they follow and (b) by the tweets they receive from those accounts, either directly or indirectly (via retweets). More than a third of respondents do not follow any media sources, but among those who do, we find a substantial amount of overlap (51%) in the ideological distributions of accounts followed by users on opposite ends of the political spectrum. At the same time, however, we find asymmetries in individuals’ willingness to venture into cross-cutting spaces, with conservatives more likely to follow media and political accounts classified as left-leaning than the reverse. Finally, we argue that such choices are likely tempered by online news watching behavior.
How much do social media platforms encourage citizens to inhabit online “bubbles” or “echo chambers” where they are only, or primarily, exposed to political information that aligns with their existing ideology?
To investigate this question, we explore distinctions between participants’ accounts followed and all tweets potentially seen. When analyzing social media diets using all “received” tweets, we find similar levels of overlap between users at opposite ends of the political spectrum than when looking only at accounts followed. Also, when looking at received tweets instead of accounts, larger shares of the most liberal and conservative respondents are potentially exposed to counter-attitudinal content.
We find that retweets lead to somewhat more ideologically heterogeneous information environments than looking at directly authored tweets alone. Additionally, some individuals are more willing to venture into counter-political spaces than others, with conservatives more likely to follow media and political accounts classified as left-leaning than the reverse. Overall, we conclude that no evidence for a strict characterization of echo chambers in which most of people’s sources of news are mutually exclusive and from opposite sides of the spectrum exists.