What do the academics say? Social media can moderate people’s politics

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Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – how social media, rather than as some people fear simply acting as an echo chamber where you only hear views you already agree with, actually opens up people to differing viewpoints:

The paper … by New York University researcher Pablo Barberá finds that many people are getting diverse voices in their Twitter newsfeeds – not just an “echo chamber” of their own ideologies. These diverse voices, he writes, “provide evidence that social media usage reduces mass political polarization.”

His findings run counter, to some degree, with other findings about social media. For instance, an August Pew study concluded that people aren’t eager to share their politics on social media, fearing that people may disagree with them. And a separate Pew study … showed some Americans eager to drop friends over political differences…

Mr. Barberá tracked how people interact on social networks by taking active Twitter users in five states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio — and then matching them up with voting records. Mr. Barberá ended up with a data set of 94,411 U.S. voters that matched Twitter profiles with 2012 voter turnout and party affiliation.

Mr. Barberá found that those users who identified with a party often started out strongly leaning left or right in whom they followed – a conservative often started out following Republican members of Congress or the GOP on Twitter while a liberal may start following Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama — but about a quarter of the people he tracked slowly added other voices into their feed, creating a feed that was increasingly more mixed in its politics.

Other research has drawn similar conclusions.

You can read the other posts in the What do the academics say? series here.

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