In a recent interview, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made the claim that America is divided “in a way that we haven’t been divided, probably since the civil war.” He blamed this division on the “right wing control of the American media,” in particular, Fox News Network. Anyone who has been following American politics in the last decade or so can attest to the fact that the government is clearly polarized. Data does in fact indicate that congress has reached levels of polarization equal to that of the years immediately following the civil war (Poole et al.). And, according to the Pew Research Center (“Partisan Polarization”), and the American National Election Studies (as cited by Haidt and Hetherington), division among the public has also greatly increased in the last several decades. However, the further question of whom or what is to blame is much harder to answer.
Numerous studies indicate that partial blame does, indeed, rest on narrowcast (or cable news) media, of which FNN is a part. But, it seems unlikely in this media rich age that sole blame would fall on one media network or even several. For one thing, despite corporate and government efforts to the contrary, the internet in general and social media in particular has become a breeding ground for counter-culture and revolutionary movements. With this powerful tool available and given how low general approval is for the current US Congress, why has there not been a serious movement to overthrow or reform the system? Social science (in particular group polarization and intergroup conflict related research) sheds light on why media has become a dividing rather than unifying factor.
“Group polarization means that members of a deliberating group predictably move toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendencies” (Sunstein “Law” 176). This robustly proven phenomenon has several explanations all of which have been supported by numerous studies.
- Social comparison – “…people want to be perceived favorably by other group members and also to perceive themselves favorably. Once they hear what others believe, they often adjust their positions in the direction of the dominant position” (Sunstein Republic.com 65).
- Persuasive arguments and information – A person’s position “is likely to move in the direction of the most persuasive position defended within the group, taken as a whole” (Sunstein Republic.com 64).
- Confidence, corroboration and extremism – “On many issues people are really not sure what they think, and their lack of certainty inclines them toward the middle. As people gain confidence, they usually become more extreme in their beliefs. Agreement from others tends to increase confidence, and for this reason like-minded people, having deliberated with one another, become more sure that they are right and thus more extreme” (Sunstein Republic.com 66).
Since the advent of cable television in 1949 and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, TV and radio programs have become increasingly geared towards particular audiences – thus the term narrowcast as opposed to broadcast. According to Iyengar and Hahn, and Pew Research (“News Landscape”), people are deliberately seeking out news sources that are slanted towards a particular ideology. Because of this trend, they are likely to succumb to the “social comparison” influence and polarize toward what they perceive as the dominant position. Even though no group interaction is occurring they are being exposed to arguments from others and this exposure is all that is needed (Sunstein Republic.com 66). A study done on the influence of Fox News Network shows that a significant portion of people (between 3%-8%) who were introduced to that network between 1996 and 2000 were motivated to vote Republican whereas they previously would not have (DellaVigna and Kaplan). While I could locate no similar study on the influence of MSN on voter behaviour, Pew Research (“News Landscape”) shows that the level of segregation of its audience is almost equal to that of FNN.
While TV and radio media has become more segregated in recent years, there is some debate as to whether or not online media consumption has equally segregated. Sunstein emphatically argues that it has due to personalization and filtering trends. However, Gentzkow and Shapiro contend that online consumption of news has not segregated that much. Two points should be taken into consideration in regards to the results of this study:
- As the authors themselves point out, their data does not give any observable information on how the audience is interpreting what they read; and it is probable, that people with different views could read the same story and come to different conclusions about it according to their bias. (1802 & 1832)
- The study focuses only on online news consumption and does not include any information on the level of segregation of online behaviour in social media. This is important because the number of people who get and share news via social media is on the rise (Olmstead et al .10) and the number of Americans that spend time daily on social media is at 46% of the population (Pew Research Center “Global Publics”).
In their daily offline behaviour people tend to segregate by making choices to only spend time with certain acquaintances, friends, and family and avoid those they do not enjoy, agree with ideologically or feel socially compatible with. Gentzkow and Shapiro note that personal offline networks have much higher levels of segregation than consumption behaviour of online news (1816). However, people’s use of social media is more like real life networking than it is their news consumption and thus one could assume that segregation levels on social media would be closer to the former than the latter.
Facebook allows users to categorize people on their friends list into “family”, “close friends”, “acquaintances”, and “restricted” with each group having a different level of access to the information the user is sharing. Privacy settings and the ability to decide whom of their friends a user wants to see posts of in their newsfeeds contribute to the ability of users to be very selective of what type of information and interactions they will have in their time on Facebook. While it is true that not all users utilize these features extensively, Facebook also employs an algorithm, called edgerank, which censors what each user sees in their newsfeed according to whom of their friends and what pages or groups they interact with most often (Lowder).
Similarly most major commercial sites and search engines employ some type of personalization software that attempts to track users’ behaviour and tailor ads and search results in ways that match what they think the user will want to see. Thus, even when people do not choose themselves to censor and personalize their online behaviour companies are doing it for them anyway, often without their knowledge or control. Many academics (e.g. Sunstein and Pariser) have expressed concern over these personalization “bubbles” because they see them as detrimental to the principles of a deliberative democracy. While there is research (Gentzkow & Shapiro, Ingenito & Nefkens) showing that the problem of filtering is not as pervasive as Sunstein and Pariser purport, there are still concerns regarding the quality of deliberation that is occurring in social media.
Facebook users are able to join groups or follow “pages” that have political purpose and these have varying degrees of openness to debate (dependent on the administrator/moderator). The groups Ingenito studied were found to have a significant degree of heterogeneity; however, despite this there were very few new arguments being presented on the topics under discussion. So, while group members were not being isolated from all opposing views, there was still a limited argument pool. Limited argument pools are the main cause of group polarization occurring when the “persuasive arguments and information” factor is involved (Sunstein Republic.com 65).
Go here for part 2: Repukes and Democraps
- American National Election Studies. “Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behaviour.” American National Election Studies. ANES. 2008. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Della Vigna, Stefano and Ethan Kaplan. “The Fox News Affect: Media Bias and Voting.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 122.3 (2007): 1187-1234. JSTOR. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF File. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Gentzkow, Matthew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 126.4 (2011): 1799-1839. Oxford Journals. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF File. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Haidt, Jonathan and Marc J. Hetherington. “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.” The Opinion Pages. The New York Times. 17 Sep. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Iyengar, Shanto and Kyu S. Hahn. “Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use.” Journal of Communication. 59.1 (2009): 19-39. Wiley Online Library. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF File. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Ingenito II, David. “Democracy in the 21st Century: Social Media and Politics – Global Village or Cyber-Balkans?” Thesis U. of Southern California, 2010. USC Digital Library. University of Southern California, 2012. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Kennedy Jr., Robert F. “RFK Jr. On Fracking.” HuffPost Live. TheHuffingtonPost.com. 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Lowder, J. Bryan. “Where did all my Facebook Friends’ Updates Go?” Future Tense. Slate.com. 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Nefkens, Bob. “The Google Bubble: Is Personalization Fragmenting Society?” New Media MA Thesis. bobnefkens.nl. 23 Jul. 2011. PDF File. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Pariser, Eli. “Beware online ‘filter bubbles’.” Talks. TED May 2011. Web. 24. Feb. 2013.
- Pew Research Center. “Partisan Polarization in Bush, Obama Years; Trends in American Values: 1987-2012.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Pew Research Center. 4 June 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.—. “In Changing News Landscape, Even Television is Vulnerable; Trends in News Consumption: 1991-2012.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Pew Research Center. 27 Sep. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.—. “Global Publics Embrace Social Networking; Computer and Cell Phone Usage up Around the World.” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. Pew Research Center. 15 Dec. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Poole, Keith et al. “The Polarization of the Congressional Parties.” Voteview.com. PolarizedAmerica.com. 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
- Sunstein, Cass R. “The Law of Group Polarization.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 10.2 (2002): 175-95. Wiley Online Library. Thompson Rivers University Library. PDF file. 24 Feb. 2013.—. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.