The absolute majority of the Popular Party in Andalusia, the first left-wing president in the history of Colombia and the end of the dominance of Emmanuel Macron’s coalition in the French National Assembly. This week has left profound changes in the political landscape, but there is something that has sounded the same for years: every time there are elections we hear that social networks isolate us from our rivals and polarize us.
The idea that networks show us only those contents that prove us right comes from Eli Pariser’s book The bubble filter (Penguin Press, 2011), that he defended a decade ago that the networks enclose us in ideological bubbles, that we consume only what agrees with our opinions and we feed back our beliefs. However, although it continues to be a widespread theory, eleven years later academic knowledge points in another direction.
“In social networks the probability of exposing yourself to information with which you do not agree is much higher than in the world offline& rdquor ;, he affirms Javier Lorenzo-Rodriguez, professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M). Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon agree that “Incidental consumption of news is more frequent on-lineand that increases the diversity of sources”.
An echo chamber itself
in 2018the Knight Foundation pointed out, ironically, that the echo chambers argument has been amplified and distorted generating an echo chamber itself. Its researchers for this report criticized, for example, that the proportion of people who get information through social networks “is often exaggerated & rdquor; to give that impression.
News and politics represent only 20% of the volume of tweets globally, according to data provided by Twitter to Verify. The remaining 80% are about “people’s passions”, such as video games, lifestyle, music, movies, television or sports. Also, in the ranking of the 100 most followed accounts in Spain, only three politicians appear: Pablo Iglesias (in 21st place), Pedro Sánchez (50th) and Mariano Rajoy (92nd); the rest are artists, athletes or celebrities, above all.
Lorenzo-Rodríguez points out that “Political discussion is residual on these platforms” and that its effect on politics has been overestimated. The teacher just posted an investigation in which he demonstrates -based on a survey carried out for the 2015 general elections-, that 50% of people say they do not pay attention to any political account and almost 35% admit to being exposed to the accounts of more than one party and more than one politician of different formations in their social networks.
Networks, more plural than real life
It is not only that politics and news are not the most commented on networks, but also that these platforms are more plural than our social circle. “It is true that we build similar communities in our social networks”, clarifies Lorenzo-Rodríguez, who explains that, although the so-called “homophilia” (the tendency to relate to, follow and read those who think like us), this behavior is not different from what we maintain in our day to day or from what was maintained before the appearance of new technologies.
“Before, the average citizen consumed an information medium and a radio, but it is more likely that the listener of ‘SER’ read ‘El País’ or ‘El Periódico’ and that the listener of ‘COPE’ buy the ‘ABC’ & rdquor ;, he points out in this regard. In addition, in our closest circle, made up of our family and our friends, “the tendency is for our networks to be quite homophilic”, since we surround ourselves with people with whom we share values, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics. “Actually, your exposure to different opinions is very limited in the world offline& rdquor ;, maintains.
The key to understanding why networks increase the chances that we find opinions with which we do not agree is in the ‘weak ties’ or weak links. Ana Sofia Cardinalprofessor of Political Science at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), points out that “among our contacts we not only have our family and friends, but we also have the friend of the friend of our friend, without taking into account that, in networks arithmetic like Twitter, we establish relationships with strangers & rdquor ;.
The UOC professor describes that “it is through these ‘weak ties’ so typical of social networks that the most diverse information is filtered, so that, in the end, you end up having a more plural environment than you would have in your daily life”.
Do social networks cause polarization?
Another of the most repeated mantras is that social networks contribute to increasing polarization. “There is not the necessary knowledge to affirm something like that & rdquor;Cardenal says. The expert points out that “there are studies that find that there are no effects, others that say that the effects are minimal and others that indicate that there are.”
For example, a study published in 2019which used survey data from the 28 countries of the European Union before Brexit, concluded that citizens who consume political news through social networks are no longer polarized than those who resort to other sources. another study of 2017, carried out in the United States, indicated that a greater use of the Internet was not associated with a faster growth of political polarization.
On the contrary, another investigation carried out in the North American countrydeduced in 2018 that exposure to opposing viewpoints on social media can increase political polarization. The authors recruited a group of people and asked them to follow ‘bots’ that shared messages contrary to their opinions. The results showed that Republicans became significantly more conservative. Democrats became more liberal, but in the latter the change was not statistically significant.
The data in Spain
In Spain, Javier Lorenzo-Rodríguez has also recently published together with Mariano TorcalProfessor of Political Science at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), a study for analyze the effect of Twitter on affective polarizationthat is, the degree of affection towards those who sympathize with our ideas and rejection towards those who think differently.
Within the framework of the Europeans of 2019, the researchers made a group of people follow on Twitter those candidates contrary to their ideology, another group followed institutional accounts of the European Union and the latter were allowed to freely choose who to follow. Most of those who had the autonomy to do what they wanted chose to follow like-minded political leaders. “Those who were already polarized remained the same and those who were not, also& rdquor ;, affirms Lorenzo-Rodríguez.
On the one hand, the participants who were exposed to the tweets of the candidate with whom they most identified did not develop a greater or lesser rejection towards those who think differently nor a greater or lesser affection towards those of the same ideology. On the other hand, users who saw messages from leaders opposed to their beliefs did not experience any change either. “This comes to reject the idea that social networks are to blame for polarization & rdquor;point.
What we know and what we don’t
Both Cardenal and Lorenzo-Rodríguez warn that Different methodologies often lead to different results. and that, therefore, one cannot speak of polarization in networks with such ease. For example, González-Bailón warns of the difficulties of survey-based studies because often “What people say they do does not correspond to what they actually do.” In Internet.
As evidence from Twitter o those published by Lorenzo-Rodríguez, what we do know is that “most people are not interested in politics & rdquor ;, Cardenal insists. “Instead, there is a hyper-politicized and hyper-exposed segment of the population to the information that, surely, is the one that can experience a greater polarizing effect& rdquor ;, he underlines.