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Social Media Actually Reduces Political Extremism, Study Says

Social media users are exposed to more political diversity than they expect, and that has an important and unexpected effect.

Social Media Actually Reduces Political Extremism, Study Says
[Photo: Flickr user Beverley Goodwin]

Conventional wisdom says that social media leads to groupthink, as users can tune out anyone they don’t agree with. But a new study says that social media isn’t as much of an “echo-chamber” as it’s accused of being–and the effect can make people more politically moderate.

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The findings come from Pablo Barberá, a New York University PhD candidate, who studied millions of Twitter users in the United States, Spain, and Germany. Barberá determined people’s political affiliations based on the politicians, political parties, and political reporters or media outlets they follow. He then analyzed each person’s network and found them to be more diverse than expected.

How is that possible? In short: It’s because social networks are big. Users follow many acquaintances who are outside their immediate circle of (frequently like-minded) family and friends, and those acquaintances increase the diversity of political opinions that a social media user sees.

Over time, this exposure to political diversity leads to more thought-provoking discussions of issues, and more challenges to a person’s way of thinking. And that all leads to a measurable moderation, Barberá reports. “Contrary to conventional wisdom,” he says, “my analysis provides evidence that social media usage reduces mass political polarization.”

As the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, this isn’t the first report to discover that social media leads to more open-mindedness. But perhaps the most shocking part of the report is this: Despite a gridlocked Congress and what seems like a total divide between red and blue states, Americans seem especially susceptible to moderation. Barberá reported:

“In the United States, only a relatively small amount of diversity (over 15%) is necessary for individuals to become moderate; whereas in Germany and Spain it needs to be closer to 35%.”

But all three countries have one thing in common: A majority of their social media users have social networks that are so diverse, Barberá “would expect them to become moderate over time.”