News Consumption in the Age of Facebook
The New Yorker’s most shared Facebook post regarding Republican Senate Candidate Ray Moore stated that Moore was “banned from a mall in Gadsden, Alabama, because he badgered teen girls.” Meanwhile, the most shared post published by Fox News on the topic stated that one of Moore’s accusers “worked as a sign language interpreter for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
Should we care that conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning outlets present such different views? Ideally, voters would consume news from diverse sources and decide for themselves which position is more persuasive. However, two forces have been driving people to consume more extreme news that matches their opinion. As a result, a more segregated media environment may have divided public opinion, and decreased empathy for other points of view.
First, consumers have more media choices than ever before. In the past, a news consumer could only choose among several local newspapers. Radio, network television, and later cable news increased the number of available news outlets, but still kept them fairly limited. The internet revolutionized the options consumers face, and one can easily find a news source that fits one’s particular outlook.
Not only are there more choices, but consumers no longer have to subscribe to only one or two outlets. Instead, news consumers can now read specific articles that interest them. In fact, a 2016 Pew study showed that most people who read a news article from their smartphone, did not read additional articles from the same news site in a given month.
The second reason for increasingly polarized news consumption is that each individual is now exposed to customized news suggestions. The suggestions could be based on friends’ recommendations or AI algorithms, such as the algorithms determining the order of posts in the Facebook news feed. In both cases, the suggestions tend to match our opinions. A study conducted by Facebook researchers showed that for every cross-cutting article that appeared in a user’s news feed, there were between 2-3 articles with a slant matching the user’s ideology.
A less discussed effect of consuming news recommended based on personal preferences is that suggested articles tend to be more extreme. Try to recall the last time you shared a news article. Odds are that the article had a strong passionate position on a topic and was not merely reporting the facts in a dry manner.
When extreme articles are more likely to be shared, we are all more likely to consume extreme content. An analysis I conducted of browsing data provided by comScore (the sample is not representative, but reweighted to match the US household population), revealed that when individuals access news directly (not through a browser link), only 24% of the sites accessed were extreme. However, when they accessed news through Facebook, and thus were more likely to consume personally suggested articles, about 41% of sites were extreme.
Granted, polarization in news consumption is not a new phenomenon. Well before people consumed news on Facebook, Washington Post readers would have been exposed to a more liberal perspective than Washington Times readers. However, the abundance of options available online, along with a new infrastructure promoting attention-grabbing partisan articles, may exacerbate polarization. Conservatives and liberals are no longer simply consuming news from different outlets, they are often consuming almost opposite content.
Indeed, after liberals and conservatives read completely different stories on the senate elections in Alabama, it is not surprising that, according to a YouGov poll, 83% of liberals believed the allegations against Moore, compared to 39% of conservatives.
Fortunately, the unique characteristics of social media also provide an opportunity to address this problem. The fact that news consumption is less expensive, allowing practically anyone to access almost any article at any time, not only means that individuals can easily consume their favorite viewpoint, but also that almost no effort is required to read articles providing other perspectives. Online experiments I conducted demonstrated that when nudged, many people are willing to be exposed to new views.
As an exercise, try liking one Facebook page you normally would not agree with, and read the next three articles posted by the page that appear in your news feed. You might not agree with the content but, at the very least, you will have a better understanding of the rationale behind other opinions.
Ro’ee Levy is an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the economics department at Yale. His research focuses on political economy and environmental economics. He is currently conducting field experiments studying the effect of social media news consumption on political opinions and behavior.