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Study: Internet Helps Drive Political Polarization

FILE - An Internet user in Los Angeles monitors a Facebook discussion board while watching televised coverage of President Barack Obama's speech from Cairo University, June 4, 2009.

You may have suspected it. Now, new research backs it up: The Internet is helping to raise the rancor level in American political discourse.

In a new study, political science researchers say that access to broadband Internet has increased people’s hostility to those in the opposing party.

It’s a small effect. But according to the authors, it’s contributing to an angry election season.

The study, published in the American Journal of Political Science, used public opinion surveys from 2004 and 2008, as access to broadband Internet was growing. The surveys asked people to rate how much they liked and trusted presidential candidates from their own party and the opposite party. They compared those figures with measures of Internet access.


Those with broadband were slightly more polarized — they disliked their opponents a little more than those without broadband.

“The effect is only about a 1- or 2-point increase in polarization, and polarization in that time period increased about 15 points or so,” said study co-author Yph Lelkes, a political communication professor at the University of Amsterdam. “So, it’s not a huge effect. But it is part of the story.”

The World Wide Web offers a nearly limitless variety of news and opinions. But research shows that people mostly seek out information they agree with.

What people can end up with are endless opportunities “to hear only voices that are similar to themselves,” Lelkes said. “If you only hear your own side, you become more polarized.”

Lelkes acknowledged that the study uses an “imprecise measure.” However, he added, “I think the fact that we found anything despite the bluntness of the instrument and the potential countervailing forces speaks to the strength of this effect.”

Small effect

While there’s always a risk in this kind of analysis that something else is causing the correlation, Temple University political science professor Kevin Arceneaux said the results fit with what his research is finding. “The influence of partisan news media is not one of necessarily persuading people to support their side,” he said. “It’s preaching to the choir and pushing people on the other side even further into their corner.”

It’s important not to overstate the impact, Arceneaux said. People who seek out political news “are probably already sort of ideological. There’s only so much further you can move them.”

And most people actually avoid political news, he added.

When you add it all up, though, “we do believe that it has some effect. Likely a small effect.”

Social media may be increasing the effect. Even if we don’t seek it out, partisan news leaks into our lives through Facebook and Twitter. That’s an area Arceneaux and his colleagues are studying now.