Study: Online Media Don't Polarize Like Critics Claim

Update - 12:48 PM | Lachlan Markay: David Brooks weighs in. See his thoughts below.

One of the gripes about online journalism often aired by the Helen Thomases and the Chuck Todds of the world is that online news consumers will only consume news that reinforces their worldview or political beliefs. A new scholarly study challenges that assumption.

The study, conducted by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, both of the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that there is "no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time." In other words, contrary to Old Media's accusations, the Internet is not an overwhelmingly polarizing force.

The study found that the Internet exposes people to ideas that they do not normally encounter in face-to-face interactions during their daily lives. Though this should come as little surprise -- with the wealth of information the web provides, how could it not regularly challenge worldviews and preconceptions? -- it is perhaps worth reminding the skeptics.

According to the study's abstract, it used

individual and aggregate data to ask how the Internet is changing the ideological segregation of the American electorate. Focusing on online news consumption, offline news consumption, and face-to-face social interactions, we define ideological segregation in each domain using standard indices from the literature on racial segregation. We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members. We find no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time.

The study also contradicts -- though in less than forceful terms -- the findings of Harvard Law professor, and Obama's "Regulatory Czar," Cass Sunstein.

Sunstein wrote in 2001 that the Internet would create an information environment in which "people restrict themselves to their own points of view — liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; Neo-Nazis, Neo-Nazis."

The result, he claimed, would limit the "unplanned, unanticipated encounters [that are] central to democracy itself."

But Gentzkow and Shapiro find that such encounters on the Internet are still high in absolute terms, though lower than most other news sources -- with the notable exception of major newspapers.

Nate Anderson channels Old Media, and reminisces of objective days gone by: "Back in the days when many towns had a single newspaper and people could choose from one of three centrist nightly news broadcasts on the major networks, finding and consuming even a single extreme viewpoint from the media could be difficult. Today, it's a mouse click away."

But though Anderson is correct in noting that barriers to information sharing are lower than they have ever been, the world has never been short of crazies. Neo-Nazis, to use Sunstein's example, do not need a Neo-Nazi website to reinforce their beliefs (though they may seek one out), and people who are not disposed to those beliefs will not be swayed by some obscure website, even if they happen to find it among the trillions of bits of information swirling around the Web.

Even with the "three centrist nightly news broadcasts" and the relative absence of "extreme" viewpoints among mainstream information sources, Neo-Nazis (rather, their historical predecessors) still existed.

That is because, as Gentzkow and Shapiro note, taken as a whole news sources, including the Internet and major newspapers, do not have the effect on our beliefs and preferences that face-to-face interactions with family, friends, and neighbors do. If you don't believe that, just ask anyone who has worked on a political campaign.

*** UPDATE: David Brooks concluded his column on the study thusly:

This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate. But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not sheltered.

If this study is correct, the Internet will not produce a cocooned public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square. The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.