To what extent do echo chambers exist in online settings? To answer this question, we analyze data from 3.8 million Twitter users and find that previous work might have overestimated the amount that echo chambers affect social media usage.
Barberá, Pablo, John T. Jost, Jonathan Nagler, Joshua A. Tucker, and Richard Bonneau. “Tweeting from Left to Right.” Psychological Science 26, no. 10 (2015): 1531–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615594620
Aug 21, 2015
Area of Study
We estimated ideological preferences of 3.8 million Twitter users and, using a data set of nearly 150 million tweets concerning 12 political and nonpolitical issues, explored whether online communication resembles an “echo chamber” (as a result of selective exposure and ideological segregation) or a “national conversation.” We observed that information was exchanged primarily among individuals with similar ideological preferences in the case of political issues (e.g., 2012 presidential election, 2013 government shutdown) but not many other current events (e.g., 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, 2014 Super Bowl). Discussion of the Newtown shootings in 2012 reflected a dynamic process, beginning as a national conversation before transforming into a polarized exchange. With respect to both political and nonpolitical issues, liberals were more likely than conservatives to engage in cross-ideological dissemination; this is an important asymmetry with respect to the structure of communication that is consistent with psychological theory and research bearing on ideological differences in epistemic, existential, and relational motivation. Overall, we conclude that previous work may have overestimated the degree of ideological segregation in social-media usage.
As more people use the Internet, opportunities to interact with a variety of perspectives is expanded. However, to the extent that individuals expose themselves to information that simply reinforces their existing views, greater access may result in an “echo chamber,” which can lead to social extremism and political polarization. But to what extent do “echo chambers” factor into an individual’s experience on social media?
To answer this question, we compiled data from 3.8 million Twitter users and, using a data set of nearly 150 million tweets about 12 different issues, examined whether online communication resembles an “echo chamber” or a “national conversation.” In our analysis, we collect data from 12 significant political and non-political events and issues that arose from 2012-14. These topics include issues frequented by Republicans and Democrats, like the federal budget, and more partisan issues including marriage equality and raising the minimum age. We also included issues discussed equally by both sides like the 2012 presidential campaign and the 2013 government shutdown. Our non-political topics ranged from sports and entertainment, like the 2014 Super Bowl, to mass tragedies, like the use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war.
Overall, concerning both political and nonpolitical issues, liberals were more likely than conservatives to engage in tweeting across ideological lines. This is an important asymmetry with respect to the structure of communication consistent with psychological theory and research on ideological differences in different kinds of motivation. When it comes to explicitly political issues, individuals are clearly more likely to pass on information that they have received from ideologically similar sources than to pass on information that they have received from dissimilar sources. Still, we conclude that previous work may have overestimated the degree of that “echo chambers” factor into social-media usage.