How Echo Chambers on Social Media Lead to Political Polarization
Written by Sara Imran
BA (Political Science and English), University of Toronto, Canada
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
Does increased social media use lead to greater political polarization and deepening partisanship through the creation of echo chambers? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines echo chambers as “a situation in which people only hear opinions of one type or opinions that are similar to their own.”  The evidence provided in this article will prove that citizens who used social media for political purposes were polarized through the creation of echo chambers, and were not swayed by cross-cutting ideologies. However counter-arguments to this perspective will also be considered, such as the fact that much of the evidence only points towards social media further deepening already ingrained ideologies, rather than swaying those who were undecided. The article will conclude by stating the importance of studying the link between social media and political polarization by discussing the exact ways in which social media hinders constructive debates and consequently affects the public adversely in the democratic process.
How Does Social Media Cause Political Polarization?
Several statistics point towards a trend of political polarization which can be accredited to the rise of social media. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, in the United States in 1994 around 20 percent of party affiliates had unfavorable perspectives of opposing parties, but by 2016, this statistic had increased to more than 55 percent (Boxell, 2017). Since the advent of social media has largely taken place over the last decade, it is highly likely that these platforms are one of the main causes of this evident political polarization. There are other statistics that convey a similar view. For example, in 1960 in the United States, around 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats expressed displeasure when asked about the prospect of their children marrying outside their political party. However, by 2010, approximately 50 percent of Republicans and over 30 percent of Democrats expressed unhappiness towards the idea (Boxell et al., 2017). This negative attitude towards the idea of inter-party marriage conveys a trend towards rising political partisanship which can be attributed to the rise of social media.
These statistics convey a common perspective; polarization has risen in the last few decades, just as many new social media platforms have emerged and have been used increasingly by those voting in elections.
The numbers support the argument that the increasing use of social media has resulted in greater political polarization, rather than users of these media being swayed by different political perspectives.
Many scholars have conducted research on this topic using Twitter as their primary platform of investigation, and their findings have pointed towards a rising trend in political polarization that can be credited to social media. For instance, Gruzd and Roy investigated political polarization on Twitter during the 2011 Canadian Federal Election (Gruzd, Roy, 2014). They analyzed a sample of tweets, from which they found that those who belonged to a certain political party tweeted members of the same party more than they did others (Gruzd, Roy, 2014). Even though Gruzd and Roy found that there was evidence of exposure to cross-cutting ideologies, the users were not likely to be swayed by these perspectives, and instead use of this platform during an election led to more deeply ingrained partisan tendencies (Bail et. al, 2018). Another similar study was conducted by Bail et al. and the results of their experiment support the hypothesis being researched (Bail et al. 2018). They conducted a field experiment in the United States where they gave financial incentives to Democrats and Republicans to follow Twitter bots that retweeted messages by elected politicians with opposing political perspectives (Bail et al, 2018). Consequently, Republican participants expressed considerably more conservative attitudes when they followed a liberal Twitter bot, and Democrats’ views also became slightly more liberal after they followed a conservative bot on Twitter (Bail et al, 2018). Furthermore, another research study conducted by scholars Hong and Kim, which studied the social media activity of members of the 111th U.S. House of Representatives also found evidence that political polarization exists on social media (Hong, Kim, 2016). The researchers examined the Twitter followers of the politicians and found that members with more extreme political perspectives had more followers than those with more neutral ideologies (Hong, Kim, 2016).
All three of these studies by scholars prove that political partisanship is increasing with the rise of social media and since these studies range across both Canada and the United States the reliability of the results is quite high.
However, it is important to keep in mind that all these studies were conducted only on Twitter, and so a degree of reservation must be observed before generalizing these results to all social media platforms. The trend of echo chambers is also present on Facebook, as seen in a study by Bakshy et al (Bakshy et al, 2015). After surveying data on approximately 10.1 million U.S. Facebook users who listed their political ideologies, Bakshy et al. found that around two-thirds of people who are friends on Facebook share similar political views (Bakshy et al, 2015). These findings suggest that people with similar views tend to cluster together, not only on Twitter but also on Facebook and blogs, and create echo chambers which can increase partisan tendencies.
These studies show that people do indeed tend to seek out politically like-minded perspectives and by doing this on social media they may be trapping themselves in self-created echo chambers.
In general, the results from these studies are in line with psychological research on the topics of “confirmation bias” , “homophily”  and “selective exposure”, which states that people with similar interests tend to group together and that humans are more likely to seek out and agree with ideas that are in line with their pre-existing beliefs (de-Wit et al, 2019).
For example, according to the Pew Research Center, it is more likely for Democrats to turn to CNN, a liberal-leaning news source, for updates, whereas Republicans will be more likely to turn to Fox News, that is conservative-leaning (Rosentiel, 2013). Thus, the results of these studies confirm the tendencies of citizens that are already evident via psychological research, making the evidence quite strong.
To put these findings into perspective, it is important to see exactly how many people use social media. In Canada for example, approximately 94 percent of adult internet users have at least one social media account (Mai, 2018). This allows one to see the extent of which self-created echo chambers on social media can impact politics since so many registered voters can be polarized through social media. A study of Internet Explorer users in 2013 also analyzed how reading news on social media differs from consuming news through other channels, like browsing directly (Gentzkow, 2018). The study evaluated around 50,000 users who were avid readers of news and opinion articles (Gentzkow, 2018). The research suggested that news accessed by users on social media channels was much more polarized ideologically than content which was obtained via other sources, such as direct browsing (Gentzkow, 2018). Given that many people today get their news updates via social media, the likelihood of political polarization via echo chambers is quite high, which adds legitimacy to the argument suggested at the beginning of this article.
However, it is important to consider other possible perspectives and counter-arguments, as well as the limitations of the research that points towards social media causing political polarization.
Many of the aforementioned studies only considered how social media use resulted in deepening already existent political ideologies, rather than also considering whether social media platforms swayed those who were neutral in their political stances. For instance, Bail et al. only mentioned that Republicans expressed more conservative views after following a liberal bot, and Democrats more liberal views after following a conservative bot (Bail et al, 2018). They did not take into account how those with neutral views were affected after following bots of a particular political ideology.
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that there is research that suggests political polarization was already underway before the advent of social media. Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro, for example, with help from survey data by the American National Election Study, created a polarization index using nine indicators of political polarization (Gentzkow, 2018). This index showed that political polarization was present even before the internet existed (Gentzkow, 2018). Hence, although social media may be one of the reasons behind political polarization, it is not the only one, and other factors leading to polarization must be considered as well.
Another perspective to keep in mind is that research by Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro also suggests that older age groups, which tend to use social media the least, are highly politically polarized (Gentzkow, 2018). Gentzkow states that it could be possible that social media increases polarization among youth, while another factor is responsible for causing polarization amongst older generations (Gentzkow, 2018). Hence, Gentzkow points towards the likelihood of social media being one of the main drivers for polarization in young people. Therefore, it is possible that social media may be driving polarization only in certain age groups, that it could be one of many other factors contributing to polarization and considering if and how these platforms may be swaying the ideologies of undecided voters.
Keeping these counter-perspectives in mind, there is still extremely strong evidence that points towards the advent of social media leading to political polarization. It is hence important to study this question in detail, as we need to consider how polarization via social media hinders constructive debates and affects the public adversely in the democratic process. Conclusion Prime Minister Trudeau mentioned at a conference in Paris that social media may be playing a role in undermining democracy (Press, 2018).
According to an article by Global News, Trudeau stated, “it is easier to push someone into being angry through a well-timed tweet than to pull them into a positive dialogue about issues” (Press, 2018).
Another example from Nepal also provides a look at the negative impact of polarization caused by social media. Biranchi Poudyal writes that Nepalis, who are regular users of social media platforms, are divided on issues such as “secularism, transitional justice, and India or China debate” (Poudyal, 2019). According to Poudyal, this partisan thinking impacts the effective implementation of social policies since many do not agree on one policy, and hence the effective functioning of democracy is impacted (Poudyal, 2019).
In conclusion, there is definitely strong evidence ranging from a variety of sources, including statistics, scholarly research, news articles, statements from politicians such as Trudeau as well as examples of countries such as Nepal, that supports the hypothesis that the use of social media leads to political polarization. This can result in problems for the general public and government, such as a rise in fake news, less constructive debates about important issues, as well as increased difficulty in implementing policies. However, it is also important to consider other perspectives. These include questioning the legitimacy of how effective these platforms are in polarizing neutral citizens, as well as considering that these platforms may only be polarizing those of certain age groups.
Social media may definitely be causing polarization, as much of the research suggests, but it should be questioned whether it is the only cause of these rising differences between citizens, or if there are other factors at play as well.
 See Oxford Reference: Confirmation Bias: “The tendency to test one’s beliefs or conjectures by seeking evidence that might confirm or verify them and to ignore evidence that might disconfirm or refute them”
See Oxford Reference: ‘Homophily’ refers to “a common tendency for people to be drawn to those they perceive to be most like themselves.”
See Oxford Reference: ‘Selective exposure’ refers to “a tendency for people both consciously and unconsciously to seek out material that supports their existing attitudes and opinions and to actively avoid material that challenges their views.”
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