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Media, Political Communication

At the Union of Citizens, Media, and Democracy: An Examination of Exposure to Political Difference on Social Network Sites


“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error” (Mill, 1859, p. 36)

It is a generally accepted principle that a well-informed public is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  Indeed, in a letter to Richard Price, Thomas Jefferson (1789) wrote, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government” (p. 1). In fact, I often wonder what the founders might think about the increasingly partisan mass media that dominate the political discourse of the modern era.  Indeed, if a well-informed public is necessary to a healthy democracy, then what does a public primarily exposed to only a narrow range of viewpoints portend for the future of democracy in the U.S.?  Of course, the arrival of the Internet and World Wide Web prompted many to envision “the life-enhancing, exciting possibilities of computing technology with claims for…democratization” (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004, p. 39).  Specifically, utopians argued greater access to information and more opportunities to engage in public speech would usher in a new era of deliberative, participatory democracy (Benkler, 2006; Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, & Toffler, 1994; Figallo, 1995).  However, old and new media have exploded, offering citizens more choices than ever before for consuming political information.  Moreover, computer-mediated communication allows users greater control over content choice, leading to a resurgence of interest in selective exposure theory, the idea that people “are more likely to view sources that support their presuppositions as truthful” (Johnson, Bichard, & Zhang, 2008, p. 6).

In fact, there appears to be relatively significant support for people using the Internet to seek information consistent with their own political beliefs (R. Kelley Garrett, 2006; Inoue, 2003; Johnson, et al., 2008; Mutz & Martin, 2001).  However, the recent popularity of social network sites shifts the user experience from content-centric to relationship-centric, leading me to wonder whether social network sites expose users to diverse political viewpoints and ameliorate the effects of selective exposure.  What follows in this essay is a review of the importance of political diversity to democracy, a review of research on selective exposure and the Internet, and a subsequent analysis to explore whether SNSs may increase exposure to politically diverse views.

Democracy, Discourse, and Communications Technology

While I opened this paper with a quote from Jefferson highlighting the significance of public education and knowledge to the founder’s conception of democratic government, a more appropriate starting point for this discussion is following the turn of the twentieth century, where massification and commodification of audiences and the media began in earnest, raising questions about the future of democracy (McQuail, 2010).  In fact, two distinct views of the relationship between citizens, the media, and democratic government emerged in the period, from journalist Walter Lippmann and philosopher James Dewey, respectively (Bybee, 1999).

The first view comes from Lippmann, who believed the public largely incapable of rational participation in self-government, even to the extent that he questioned whether a public even existed (Lippmann, 1922, 1925).  Thus, Lippmann advocated a turn towards “realistic democracy”, a democracy based on scientific management, where “power would be substantially withdrawn from the hands of the ill-informed mass of citizens and invested in the hands of a few ‘men of action,’ public policy analysts and political leaders” (Bybee, 1999, p. 40).  While Dewey agreed with Lippmann’s diagnosis of the public, media, and democracy, he largely disagreed with Lippmann’s prescription (Bybee, 1999).  Instead, Dewey believed democracy derived from the public and the problems of democracy had little to do with an incapable public (Bybee, 1999):

…but that other new forces in society, primarily technological development and the rise of capitalism, have so restructured human relations, that the public has lost its sense of itself.  The solution is not to abandon the public in favor of science, but to help the public recover itself.  (p. 50)

Thus, Dewey envisioned greater, rather than lesser, public participation in self-government and believed communication and even communication technology critical to a deliberative and participatory democracy (Dewey, 1927), a view later scholars shared (Benkler, 2006; Habermas, 1984).  Of course, for Dewey’s democratic ideal to flourish, people would require access to information and communication between groups with diverse interests and views to develop a common public interest (Dewey, 1927).  Whereas Lippmann’s ideas more closely resemble the modern media and government, where agenda-setting power and the ability to manufacture consent are in the hands of corporate actors, policy experts, think tanks, and political leaders (Herman & Chomsky, 1988), Dewey’s communitarian ideas lived on as a democratic ideal that framed early conceptions of the Internet.  Indeed, Figallo (1995), one-time administrator at the WELL wrote:

…that public electronic networking offers society an important new forum for the practice of democratic principles and First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly…the individual in the electronic communications world…desires to interact freely with other groups and individuals.  (pp. 49-50)

Other Internet utopians had similar ideas; in their Magna Carta of the Knowledge Age, Dyson, et al. (1994) argue for the coming of the knowledge age.  In their view, a reborn “Jeffersonian vision” of citizen engagement in the public sphere would transform civil society, decentralize government, and “empower those closest to the decision” (p. 1).

However, the modern Internet and World Wide Web bear little resemblance to early utopian ideas for a deliberative, participatory democracy.  Of course, the Internet and Web satisfy Dewey’s requirement for access to information, allowing people to choose from a dizzying array of content; moreover, the technologies afford people the opportunity to explore the viewpoints of diverse groups and individuals.  However, many worry the Internet is becoming an echo chamber (Martin, 2013; Singer, 2011), where people are only exposed to “a very narrow range of viewpoints” (Munson, 2012, p. 1).  Indeed, abundant choice coupled with greater control over the content through filtering, search, and personalization, provide people the tools to tailor their information environment (R. Kelley Garrett, 2006; Inoue, 2003).   Thus, “technology giveth and technology taketh away” (Postman, 1990, p. 1).  However, given we have the tools to seek and find diverse points of view in the spirit of political deliberation, why choose to lock ourselves in an echo chamber?

Selective Exposure

In fact, selective exposure theory helps explain why people choose to seek views similar to their own, thereby avoiding diverse views.  Originating from Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory, selective exposure was envisioned as a strategy people employ to avoid or alleviate the internal dissonance caused by information that conflicts with their views.  However, subsequent research suggests selective exposure is not the result of feelings of dissonance.  Rather, it is because people seek cognitive efficiency in their information processing strategies (Edwards & Smith, 1996; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).  Thus, selective exposure is an information-seeking strategy, rather than an information avoidance strategy.  In fact, people choose information that conforms to their presuppositions because it requires less mental energy than dealing with the information they find contradictory.

Of course, we should not be surprised the information processing technologies of the Internet—like search, filtering, and personalization—are oriented towards efficiency; our technologies are extensions of human capabilities (McLuhan, 1964).  Indeed, numerous studies provide empirical support for selective exposure on the Internet, particularly for political information (R. Kelley Garrett, 2006; Inoue, 2003; Johnson, et al., 2008; Mutz & Martin, 2001; Stroud, 2008).  It may be the information processing efficiencies in our minds and tools work together to help us identify information concordant with our beliefs, values, and partisan leanings.  Unfortunately, selective exposure represents a danger to the idea of deliberative, participatory democracy, insofar as counter-attitudinal information promotes learning, is integral to public policy debate, and helps legitimate policy decisions (Munson, 2012).  Moreover, the absence of counter-attitudinal political information leads to political polarization (Stroud, 2008).  However, there may be reason for optimism.

Inadvertent Exposure on SNSs

Indeed, it is important to recognize that much of the research on selective exposure on the Internet studied traditional information sources like mainstream news websites or even blogs, rather than SNSs.  In addition, a recent report published by Pew Internet, Rainie, L., Smith, A., Scholzman, K. L., Brady, H., & Verba, S. (2012) found that 39% of American adults use SNSs or Twitter for political and civic engagement activities.  More importantly, “34% of social media users have used the tools to post their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues” (Pew Internet, et al., 2012, p. 2).  Of course, simply posting thoughts or comments does not necessarily mean that SNSs expose people to diverse views; however, SNSs are clearly a forum for political and civic discourse and it stands to reason that opinion differences might characterize some of the discourse.

Before exploring the research on exposure to diverse views within SNSs, it might be useful to define a social network site.  According to boyd and Ellison (2007), SNSs are “web-based services that allow individuals to 1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, 2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and 3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (p. 1).  Of course, it is important to note that the design of SNSs is fundamentally different than traditional news websites or blogs.  Whereas, on traditional news websites or blogs, content occupies the central role, in SNSs, relationships are the fundamental construct.  This difference in the information architecture of the SNSs means that users no longer select content; rather they select relationships.  Thus, content becomes a by-product of relationship.  Why does this difference matter?  To answer the question, we turn to Brundidge’s (2010) inadvertency thesis.

In short, Brundidge (2010) argues that because of selective exposure people are unlikely to seek out political difference, but are inadvertently exposed regardless.  Brundidge (2010) suggests:

Inadvertency is facilitated online through a) less than perfect online selective exposure strategies, b) nonavoidance of encounters with political difference, and c) weakened social boundaries between far flung geographic locations, between one discursive space and the next…between political and apolitical spaces of communication, and between the private and the public spheres (p. 687).

The inadvertency thesis is relevant to SNSs because they blur the social boundaries between geographical space and discursive space.  Indeed, people are likely to have geographically far-flung relationships online.  Moreover, the ability to incorporate and promote content from a variety of sources into the relationship context is a key feature of most SNSs.  In addition, SNSs are not inherently political or apolitical spaces, rather a curious blending of both where political conversations are equally at home with the banal.

In fact, in their study of political discourse occurring in online chat rooms and message boards, Wojcieszak and Mutz (2009) found that Internet users encountered significant inadvertent political discourse in non-political spaces, like spaces for hobbies or interest groups.  More importantly, they found that users were far more likely to encounter political differences in those spaces when compared to political or civic spaces, supporting both the selective exposure thesis and the inadvertency thesis (Wojcieszak & Mutz, 2009).  While the authors studied online chat rooms and message boards, the findings are relevant nonetheless, insofar as SNSs are relationship-centric, lacking distinct boundaries between political and apolitical space found in content-centric websites.

Similarly, Kim (2011) believes SNS users are likely to be exposed to inadvertent political differences because of the characteristics of SNSs—namely, population heterogeneity, pervasive hyperlinks, and embedded interactive communication applications.  Indeed, in Kim’s (2011) study of how SNSs influence people’s exposure to political difference, Kim (2011) found “a positive and significant relationship between SNS use and exposure to cross-cutting point of view” (p. 975).  More importantly, Kim (2011) observed that exposure to dissimilar political views on SNSs “works across individuals’ partisanship” (p. 976).  In short, users on SNSs are likely to experience political difference irrespective of their partisan leanings.

Discussion

Exposure to political differences is perhaps the sine qua non of a healthy democracy.  Whereas early visions of the Internet led many to believe the new technology would usher in a new era of deliberative and participatory democracy, the early studies of selective exposure on the Internet suggested otherwise.  Indeed, numerous studies found that people often selected content that supported their existing ideas, rather than seeking politically diverse views.  However, recent studies of inadvertent exposure to political difference on the Internet suggest that people are exposed to political difference, primarily in apolitical spaces.  In fact, SNSs are an apolitical space increasingly used for political discourse where exposure to political difference across partisan lines is likely to occur.  Thus, the Internet is neither democracy’s City on a Hill or an Orwellian nightmare.  Rather, the technology has certain biases.  Whereas, traditional, content-centric, sites help people make cognitive shortcuts thus limiting exposure to political difference, relationship-centric sites can expose people to political difference.  Thus, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Equally, those of us that prefer Dewey’s vision of democracy to Lippmann’s need to be vigilant to protect discourse rooted in political difference, for threats remain.  For example, the inadvertency thesis depends, in part, on a certain amount of heterogeneity (Brundidge, 2010).  However, Messing and Westwood (2012) found “homophily is a powerful force that limits news consumption and drives content filtering algorithms to attenuate information from heterogeneous friends” (p. 25).  There are two principal concerns raised by Messing and Westwood (2012): first, the similarity of our SNS contacts biases our selection of news stories and second, Facebook’s underlying EdgeRank algorithm privileges news feed content from favored social contacts.

While relationship homophily on SNSs are a cause of concern, information diffusion theory suggests that some information is shared independent of homophilic biases because of its novelty or whether others share it (Bakshy, Rosenn, Marlow, & Adamic, 2012).  I am more concerned about underlying, nonadjustable, and often hidden filtering algorithms, of which Facebook’s EdgeRank is merely one example.  Indeed, Facebook, Google search, Google+, and LinkedIn all utilize various forms of personalization or filtering algorithms to tailor what their users see in their feeds or activity streams (Lunden, 2013; Marquardt, 2013; Messing & Westwood, 2012).  As an aside, Twitter is one service that avoids excessive homophily through the use of hashtags.  Thus, there are solutions.  For example, Garrett and Resnick (2011) recommend a number of architectural improvements to personalization algorithms to encourage diversity—most notably, the promotion of the most thoughtful and insightful content and comments as rated by users.  In any case, we need to recognize that we face a constitutive choice in how we experience SNSs to determine whether we allow a new generation of corporate gatekeepers to impede the flow of information, or choose to use services—like Twitter, Reddit, or Digg—that respect the information rights of their users.

Conclusion

Despite early utopian and dystopian rhetoric of the Internet’s impact on citizens and democracy, the Internet in general, and SNSs in particular, have the potential to support a healthier democracy.  In fact, while certain patterns of Internet use support the selective exposure thesis, the Internet is not simply an echo chamber; rather it is a complex public space undergoing constant change.  Indeed, the recent rise of SNSs and their growing importance to political discourse is testament to the continued evolution of our information environment.  However, to preserve and extend the capabilities that enable a deliberative, participatory democracy requires that we recognize the constitutive choices we make and how they may affect our political discourse.  Of course, James Madison (1822) expressed the sentiment best, arguing:

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.  (p. 1)

I can think of few better ways to arm ourselves with both knowledge and common purpose than to argue, disagree, and deliberate to negotiate our understandings.

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