A study by MIT has reaffirmed that social media users are more likely to follow others with political views like theirs, reinforcing polarization.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study conducted in Twitter has shown that users are three times more likely to follow those with whom they are politically aligned. As a result of self-selection in groups like this, political partisanship is reinforced. Ultimately, this demonstrates how social media can act as a socially divisive tool in this regard.
It is no news that social media platforms inadvertently create “echo chambers” as a result of users interacting more naturally with others who share their interests and points of view. It is recognized as a major problem and contributes to the spread of misinformation. However, the MIT study sought to put figures on how likely users are to self-select in such echo chambers to help us better understand the scope of the problem.
Shared partisanship dramatically increases social bonding in a Twitter field experiment was published in procedures of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers identified 842 Twitter accounts evenly split between the two major US political parties that had retweeted MSNBC or Fox News tweets and shared other content from the left or right. The accounts were followed by one of eight bot accounts that had been specially designed for the study to align with one party or another with varying degrees of “intensity of political expression”. The researchers then tracked down which of the real-life Twitter users followed the bots and the partisanship involved.
Results and implications of the study of partisanship on Twitter
The study found that actual Twitter users would follow about 15 percent of the bots they shared partisanship with, compared to just 5 percent of the bots they didn’t. He found no significant differences based on the intensity of the political opinions defended. Nor did he find significant differences between the extent to which individuals on the right or left would follow them, showing symmetry across party lines.
The growth of echo chambers on social media in this way serves to limit party-to-party interaction by a factor of three relative to party-to-party interaction and to strengthen political views. Professor David Rand, a co-author of the study, said that increased interaction between parties could require social media companies to engineer more of those interactions. However, he also said that based on current research, it is unclear whether inter-party interaction on social media or otherwise helps reduce political polarization. Social media companies are highly unlikely to seek to build user connections this way anyway, given that user satisfaction drives part of the typical social media business model. What can be gleaned from this, however, is a recognition of the role social media plays in political polarization and the need for social media companies to address it.
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