As Internet Use Grows, Is It Polarizing Political Views?

As Internet Use Grows, Is It Polarizing Political Views?

Even as an increasing number of Americans go online for political news, more than half of U.S. Internet users are wary of the web’s influence and view the Internet as a catalyst for political extremism.

Between 2002 and 2010, the share of Americans who primarily relied on the Internet for elections news more than tripled from 7 percent to 24 percent, according to a study from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

Yet, 55 percent of American web users said the Internet is increasing the influence of people with extreme political views. And over half of the web users polled said the web has made it easier to connect with other users who share their own political views, with 34 percent saying they seek out news sources that reinforce their beliefs.

For more than a decade, professors, pundits and politicians have debated the effect of the Internet on political views and news coverage. Whether or not the web has pushed conservatives to become more conservative, or liberals more liberal, Pew's research suggests Americans are concerned about the Internet's effect on civic discourse.

"It's not surprising that people have some apprehension looking at the Internet because the Internet is clearly changing how we learn about politics," said Kelly Garrett, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. "Any time you see politics changing rapidly, people are rightly concerned."

The ease with which one can access extreme opinions online is likely contributing to the perception that the web has given rise to more polarized political views. Whereas before extremist groups would have to fight for newsprint or airtime, today those same organizations can speak freely from websites or Twitter accounts that are accessible in just a few clicks.

"It comes down to the fact that we can see extreme views that were previously hidden from us when we go online. It's not necessarily that there are so many more people that are holding extreme views," said Matthew Gentzkow, a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "On the one hand, it's good to know what the other side thinks. On the other hand, I think it creates anxiety and fear."

The existence of these extremist sites does not necessarily mean they are influencing people's political views. While both Republicans, who constituted 44 percent of the poll respondents, and Democrats, who constituted 37 percent, prefer political news from sources that share their beliefs, previous studies have shown that what users say about their news consumption habits differs significantly from their actual behaviors. Research Gentzkow published in 2010 found that people with relatively extreme political views not only viewed more extreme sites, but also spent more time on centrist sites and even sites that diverged with their points of view.

"There is little evidence that the Internet is leading people to segregate ideologically and become polarized in news consumption," said Gentzkow. "There is not a lot of evidence for echo chambers--that liberals only read liberal stuff, while conservatives only read conservative stuff."

Polarization is only one element of the heated debate surrounding the Internet's effect on politics. In addition to the fear that the web may give rise to more extreme political opinions, there is also the worry that the web will enable Internet users to tune out political news altogether.

Former executive director Eli Pariser has warned that personalization via sites like Facebook and Google, which customize the content shown to users based on their browsing activity and other factors, will show users only what they want to see, but not what they need to see, shielding them from new view points that may conflict with their own.

"You give people choice and you're going to see people tuning out," Garrett said. "This personalization stuff is giving us what we want, which is insulating us."

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