Study | Partisan Divide Worsened by Increased Exposure to Opposing Viewpoints


The two parties’ symbols


We constantly state that people who live in their little bubble or echo chamber need to expand their horizons and talk to the other side. But it turns out that broadening your horizons by perusing opposing points of view on social media may just make the partisan divide worse. This is the result of a recent experiment which involved 909 Democrats and 751 Republicans who spend a lot of time on Twitter.

“Attempts to introduce people to a broad range of opposing political views on a social media sites such as Twitter might be not only ineffective but counterproductive,” researchers reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Political polarization is on the rise in America, and the results aren’t pretty, the study authors explained. “Americans are deeply divided on controversial issues such as inequality, gun control, and immigration,” the researchers wrote. “Partisan divisions not only impede compromise in the design and implementation of social policies but also have far-reaching consequences for the effective function of democracy more broadly.”

The researchers, led by Duke University sociologist Christopher Bail, attempted to specifically target people who self-identified as either Democrats or Republicans. Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with 10 statements like, “The best way to ensure peace is through military strength,” and “Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.” A week later, some of the Democrats were randomly selected to receive an apparently unrelated offer: for $11, would they be willing to follow an automated bot that retweets 24 items every day?

These Democrats weren’t told that the retweets would originate from Twitter accounts belonging to politicians, pundits, nonprofit advocacy groups and media organizations aligned with Republicans. Meanwhile, a randomly selected group of the Republican survey-takers got the same offer, and their Twitter bot retweeted messages from accounts aligned with Democrats. The word most commonly retweeted by the liberal bot was “Trump,” which appeared in its feed 256 times over the course of one month. “Tax” came in a distant second, showing up 93 times.

As it happened, these were also the two favorite words of the conservative bot, which mentioned “tax” 125 times and “Trump” 123 times. After a month of reading tweets from the other side of the political spectrum, the participants re-took the original 10-item survey. So did the people who were not asked to follow the bots.

Compared to the Democrats who did not follow the conservative bot, those who did “exhibited slightly more liberal attitudes.” The more they had paid attention to the bot’s retweets (as measured by additional surveys), the more liberal their attitudes became. However, none of these changes were large enough to be statistically significant.

It was a different story for Republicans. Compared to those who did not follow the liberal bot, those who did “exhibited substantially more conservative views” after just one month. The greater the number of liberal tweets the Republicans absorbed, the more conservative they became. These results were statistically significant.

But Bail and his colleagues from Duke, Brigham Young University and New York University said it’s too soon to give up on the idea that social media can help bridge the partisan divide. Twitter is certainly popular, but the majority of Americans still don’t use it. That means the results of this experiment wouldn’t necessarily predict how things would go if a similar initiative were rolled out to Americans as a whole, the researchers wrote.

The partisan split in America is the highest it has been in two decades, with Republicans and Democrats holding vastly disparate views on race, immigration, and the role of government, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Pew has been measuring attitudes on policy issues and political values going back to 1994, and its latest check-in finds — perhaps unsurprisingly — that Americans are more divided than ever.

“The fact that Republicans and Democrats differ on these fundamental issues is probably not a surprise, but the magnitude of the difference is striking, and particularly how the differences have grown in recent years and where they’ve grown,” Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research and one of the authors of the study, told NPR.

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