Friday, July 1, 2011

Social Networking Sites and Likeminded Others

Selective exposure, the idea we seek out information that agrees with our point or view or avoid sources that disagree with our point of view, is an appealing notion.  Unfortunately, it's one that has mixed findings.

One aspect of selective exposure is the idea that social networking sites like Facebook will make it worse.  We'll hang out, digitally that is, with folks a lot like ourselves.  There are ways Facebook organizes our news feed ("top news" versus "most recent") that should make this even worse.  That's a topic for another time, but look at both and you'll see.  Based on this and what we know about source preference, social networking sites might be expected to decrease our exposure to opinions unlike our own.

But this study finds just the opposite, that social networking sites may increase our exposure to dissimilar views.  Using Pew data, the authors found use of SNS predicted exposure to cross-cutting political viewpoints even after statistically controlling for a number of socio-demographic factors (age, education, etc.).  This holds across partisan predispositions.

Oddly, traditional news was unrelated in the model to exposure to cross-cutting views (see Table 2).  This is where the study, for me, starts to raise serious questions.  No where else except a mainstream, traditional approach to news will you find all sides presented more or less fairly, or at least given roughly equal time/space.  This excludes, of course, certain talking head shows on Fox News, MSNBC, etc.  So either social networking sites like Facebook are the salvation when it comes to exposing people to dissimilar views, or there's something wrong methodologically in the study.  Let's break it down.
  • SNS Use:  this is a 5-question index devoted specifically to using Facebook, etc., for news and political information. This makes for a very different measure than mere use of SNS, so already the results apply only for those who make use of FB and other SNS to find out news and political info.  I'm an avid FB user, but I never think to use it for that, so we're talking about a variable constrained by the particular use of the medium. 
  • Cross-Cutting Exposure: The dependent variable here is a single item described as "respondents were asked to indicate whether most of the sites they visit to get political or campaign information online challenge their own point of view, share their point of view, or do not have a particular point of view."  This dependent variable is loaded with social desirability.  I don't know how I'd do it differently, given the reliance on the Pew data, but this question only measures people's perception of their news choices, not their actual news choices.  A Fox News viewer who is politically conservative may answer this question in such a way that yes, I seek out views that challenge my own -- but we all know that in this case, it just ain't so. 

Yes, you can quibble with any methodology.  That does not take away the study's main finding, that social networking sites lead to greater exposure to opinions you disagree with.  It's rather surprising, theoretically.  Indeed, the study hypothesizes such a result but I'd argue the original hypothesis, based on all we know, should have been the other way around.  It should have hypothesized that FB use would lead to less, not greater, exposure to dissimilar others.