Politics has a way of straining even the closest relationships. A rant on Twitter from a relative can make even the most patient among us decide to stop following that person. But new research suggests that exposure to all of those diverse political views on social media may actually be making us more politically moderate.
For years, in fact, political scientists and media experts have been telling us that social media usage increases political polarization through what they describe as an “echo-chamber” effect – people surround themselves with like-minded connections and end up with a stream of comments, shares and tweets that sound remarkably like their own.
That may be true for the people we’re closest to on social networks, but “these sites facilitate exposure to messages from those with whom individuals have weak social ties,” explains Pablo Barberá, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at New York University. Your best friends may share your political views –that’s part of why you’re close –but you also see tweets from relatives and acquaintances with whom you’re less close and who may have very different political views from you.
To test whether social media can moderate political views, Barberá undertook a massive study of Twitter users and their networks in Germany, Spain, and the United States. He analyzed the tweets of nearly 200,000 politically engaged Twitter users to see whether “citizens in more diverse discussion networks…[became] more moderate over time.” He also looked at survey data collected in the three countries to further explore the effects of social media usage on political moderation.
He found that seeing a variety of political viewpoints expressed on Twitter made people more politically moderate over time. People with more political diversity in their social network tended to slowly diversify their Twitter feeds even more.
“Since individuals are now inadvertently exposed to the news their friends and acquaintances decide to share,” notes Barberá, “selective exposure to ideologically congenial information decreases.”In other words, you may have followed your cousin’s Twitter feed to see photos of his new baby, but you’re also getting a hefty dose of his economic theories on the side, and you may even follow some of the people he follows as a result of it.
This represents an important change in how we think about political polarization. Because of social media, people are no longer exposed to only actively sought information. “Individuals now have access to a wider span of viewpoints about news events,” Barberá suggests,“and most of this information is not coming through traditional channels but either directly from political actors or through their friends and relatives.”Networks can still be polarized, of course, but letting in even a little diversity tends to lead to more diversity in the future.
For communicators, then, it’s important to remember that more than just your primary audience will see your content. Your content will be shared across these networks of weak ties and will reach people who may not be in your target group politically. Whether to adapt your content to appeal to these connections is up to you, but it’s a choice that should be made strategically.