A few days ago, a tweet by Rasmus Nielsen inspired me to think about the widespread idea that most social media users only engage with political viewpoints they already agree with. The argument that social media are “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles” often looks like a truism in public discourse across Western democracies, chiefly but not only the United States.
Yesterday, someone who otherwise seemed like serious+professional person insisted I was wrong to question how widespread a problem filter bubbles are because President Obama had told David Letterman they were. No, really. Screw research in thread below, the (ex)President said so!
— Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (@rasmus_kleis) 26 January 2018
Rasmus’s thread pointed to several studies showing that political echo chambers are by no means the norm on social media. Research by Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, and Justin Rao finds that use of search engines and social media “are associated with an increase in an individual’s exposure to material from his or her less preferred side of the political spectrum”. A study by Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Nielsen himself found that people who come across news while using social media for other purposes “use significantly more online news sources than non-users”. An extensive review of the literature by Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, Damian Trilling, Judith Möller, Balázs Bodó, Claes de Vreese, and Natali Helberger concludes that “at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles“.
To those one may add a three-country study by Pablo Barberá which finds that “most social media users are embedded in ideologically diverse networks” and research by Matthew Barnidge showing that “social media users perceive more political disagreement than non-users” and that “they perceive more of it on social media than in other communication settings”. Just days after Rasmus’s tweet, Elizabeth Dubois and Grant Blank published an article titled “The echo chamber is overstated“.
Yet, as Rasmus points out, conventional wisdom seems to be stuck with the idea that social media constitute filter bubbles and echo chambers, where most people only, or mostly, see political content they already agree with. It is definitely true that there is a lot of easily accessible, clearly identifiable, highly partisan content on social media. It is also true that, to some extent, social media users can make choices as to which sources they follow and engage with. Whether people use these choice affordances solely to flock to content reinforcing their political preferences and prejudices, filtering out or avoiding content that espouses other viewpoints, is, however, an empirical question—not a destiny inscribed in the way social media and their algorithms function.
To contribute to this conversation, here I present some data from online surveys conducted in 2017 in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom immediately after each country’s general elections. (A few days ago I published an article in the Italian newspaper la Repubblica where I presented data on Italy telling a similar story.) The surveys were fielded as part of a comparative project on social media and political participation, funded by the Italian government, for which I serve as Principal Investigator. We commissioned Ipsos to interview samples of 1,750 respondents per country. We constructed these samples to be representative of internet users in each country based on gender, age, education, region of residence, and occupational condition. The research design is the same as the one employed in other research we have published, which you can check out here, here, here, and here. Augusto Valeriani and I are writing a whole book about this and other topics, which will include data from nine Western democracies including the three this post is about. Surveys are imperfect instruments, but (as we argue in the publications linked above) they are still among the best tools to measure users’ experiences across different environments, media, and digital platforms. This is relevant to the question that sparked this post: to understand whether social media function as filter bubbles, we need to know how prevalent filter bubbles are both on social media and in other environments. Surveys allow to gauge differences and similarities between these spaces.
To find out whether users encounter political content and views they mainly agree and/or disagree with, we asked respondents two simple questions: “How often do you agree with the political opinions and messages published on social media platforms by the people you follow?” and “”How often do you disagree with the political opinions and messages published on social media platforms by the people you follow?”. To compare users’ experiences across different environments, we asked a similar pair of questions focusing on face-to-face conversations (the phrase we used was “the opinions of others you speak with about politics, excluding online contacts”) and mass media (where we asked respondents to focus on “the political opinions or political contents you see in the news on television or newspapers”). To each question, respondents could answer “Always or very often”, “Often”, “Sometimes”, “Never”, and “I don’t know”. The chart below shows the percentages who answered either “Always or very often” or “Often”, excluding “Don’t know” answers. The questions on social media were asked only to those respondents who claimed to use at least one social media platform (90% of our sample).
In all three countries, the percentages of users who claim to often agree with the political content they see on social media are substantially lower than the percentages of users who claim to often disagree with those contents. There are country variations, with more balanced results in Germany (29.3% disagreement, 24.8% agreement) and more lopsided patterns in the UK (32.3% disagreement, 21.6% agreement) and, especially, France (32.9% disagreement, 17.9% agreement). Still, the overall finding is clear: social media users are more likely to disagree than agree with the political contents they see on these platforms.
Moreover, citizens are much more likely to encounter disagreeable views on social media than in face-to-face conversations, as we can see by comparing the left and center pane of the figure above. The patterns that emerge for offline discussions are the mirror image of those observed for social media, with substantially more users claiming they often agree with other people they talk to compared with those who claim they often disagree with them. The difference between agreement and disagreement in face-to-face conversations is of about 10% in France and the UK, and a whopping 36.8% in Germany (58.1% agreement, 21.3% disagreement). Thus, social media augment political pluralism when compared with face-to-face political talk.
However, television and newspapers are the most important vehicles for political pluralism, as you can see by comparing the left and right panes in the figure. In both the UK and France, twice as many respondents claim they often disagree with the political views expressed in TV and newspapers than those who claim they often agree. In Germany, the difference is still quite large (36% disagree, 26.5% agree) and larger than for social media. Consistent with research by Diana Mutz and Paul Martin from nearly two decades ago, in general, the mass media are the main source of exposure to counter-attitudinal political information.
Assessing the frequency of political agreement and disagreement on social media in isolation from one another is helpful, but how much overlap there is between them? Do people who report often agreeing with others also feel they often disagree with others, or are these separate groups of people, some of whom are in echo chambers while others are constantly battling against others they disagree with? To find out, I combined the answers to the questions on agreement and disagreement. The math is pretty simple, as you can see from the illustration below. Respondents who answered “Never” to both questions were classified as engaging with “No content“.Respondents who agree more often than they disagree with the content they see are classified as seeing “Supportive” messages, and those who disagree more often than they agree are confronted with “Oppositional” messages. Finally, respondents who gave the same answers to both questions were classified as seeing “Two-sided” content. (Of course, there can always be more than two sides to any political conflict, especially in European party systems; I use this term to echo John Zaller’s classification of campaign messages, which I find helpful to think about these issues.)
Most users claim to agree as often as they disagree with the political content they see on social media, so I classify them as encountering two-sided messages. Among respondents who identify a one-sided tendency in the content they see, users who predominantly see oppositional content greatly outnumber those who predominantly see supportive content. There are, again, some country variations, with French respondents more likely to see oppositional content (29.5%) than British (26.1%) and German ones (25.8%), and, conversely, German respondents more likely to see supportive content (20%) than British (16.1%) and French ones (12.8%).
Overall, the picture is clear: if you ask social media users to evaluate their levels of agreement and disagreement with the political content they see, ideological echo chambers and filter bubbles on social media are the exception, not the norm. Being the exception does not mean being non-existent, of course. Based on these estimates, between one in five and one in eight social media users report being in ideological echo chambers. However, most social media users experience a rather balanced combination of views they agree and disagree with. If anything, the clash of disagreeing opinions is more common on social media than ideological echo chambers.