Many of the concerns surrounding the impact of echo chambers — communities where a narrow set of views makes people less likely to challenge their own opinions — focus on social media as one of the main drivers of this phenomenon. However, despite how social media has radically changed our information ecosystem, researchers are now investigating whether it is as culpable for the rise and growth of polarizing echo chambers as many assume.
A recent study published in Science Advances suggests television is, in fact, the top driver of partisan audience segregation among Americans.
Led by Homa Hosseinmardi, Associate Research Scientist at the Computational Social Science (CSS) Lab, and Duncan Watts, CSS Lab Director and PIK professor with appointments in Penn Engineering, Wharton and the Annenberg School for Communication, they and researchers from Stanford University and Microsoft Research analyzed the contrasts between news consumption in TV and online, as well as the more specific partisan consumption patterns among TV audiences.
In an article she wrote for The Conversation, Hosseinmardi outlines the trends the team identified, including that TV news consumers are much more likely than web consumers to maintain the same partisan news diets over time, and that partisan TV news consumers tend not to stray too far from their narrow sets of preferred news sources.
The researchers studied the TV news consumption habits of tens of thousands of U.S. adults each month from 2016 through 2019, notably during the polarizing election cycles of 2016 and 2018. They discovered four aspects of news consumption that revealed surprising, and what Hosseinmardi describes as “counterintuitive,” findings about the TV news ecosystem:
“Although the overall TV news audience is shrinking, the partisan TV news audience is growing,” says Hosseinmardi. “This means that the audience as a whole is in the process of being ‘distilled’ — remaining TV viewers are growing increasingly partisan, and the partisan proportion of TV news consumers is on the rise.”
Read “Don’t be too quick to blame social media for America’s polarization – cable news has a bigger effect, study finds” at The Conversation.
Read “Quantifying partisan news diets in Web and TV audiences” in full at Science Advances.