All the talk about how online media is trapping people in their own liberal and conservative echo chambers is greatly overstating the impact that internet news has had on our democracy. In an extremely thorough paper, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro look at ideological segregation both online and offline. Not only is internet news a small part of overall news consumption (about 10%), but it’s also less ideologically segregated than our face to face interactions. Gentzkow and Shapiro construct an isolation index based on the share of conservatives who visit each source of political information and the share of liberals who visit each source of information. The index shows the gap between conservative and liberal for each information medium. Their main results, presented in the graph below, show that while the internet is more polarized than newspapers and television, it’s significantly less polarized than our face-to-face interactions with co-workers, our neighborhood, friends, family, and people we discuss politics with. In addition to the big picture results, Gentzkow and Shapiro also provide some interesting tables showing how various websites rank. Note that in general, the U.S. adult population self-identifies as 42% conservative, 21% liberal, and 38% moderate. Also notice that the four largest sites are Yahoo! News, AOL News msnbc.com, and cnn.com. Personally, I visit none of those sights on a regular basis, and had frankly assumed that AOL News had ceased to exist years ago…so this was also a good reminder of how different my news reading habits are from the general population.
There is also a table of offline news outlets. Perhaps the biggest surprises is that MSNBC is watched by substantially more conservatives than liberals. Indeed, MSNBC is close to the population in general with 39% conservative (42% population as a whole), 24% liberal (21%), and 36% moderate (38%). Fox, on the other hand, clearly tilts conservative in its viewership. (And it’s content, although that’s not something Gentzkow and Shapiro get into).
I was also surprised at how liberal The Economist readership is, given the content is written from a center-right perspective, and is particularly conservative economically. To some extent, I am forced to wonder, given it is a British magazine, if this simply reflects a liberal preference for international news. While BBC News (see online table) is perhaps center-left, it’s certainly not to the left of the Huffingtonpost, even though it gets a higher proportion of liberal readers. I will say personally that for international news The Economist and BBC are my favorite sources, and the U.S. simply doesn’t have a source that competes with them in terms of frequent and up-to-date coverage. (Foreign Affairs is good, but only comes out six times a year).
Stepping back from the details, it’s worth mentioning that larger sites are less ideologically segregated than smaller sites, and that individuals who look at the more ideologically segregated sites tend to consume more news than the average population. Right-wing individuals who spend time at foxnews.com are more likely to have visited nytimes.com than the general population, and the same is true for left-wing individuals in terms of their likelihood of reading The Wall Street Journal. In other words, the off-line echo chambers we create in our workplaces and neighborhoods have far more to do with political polarization than the content we read online. Political polarization is a problem, but it isn’t one that the internet caused, and so far it doesn’t look like the internet has made it any worse.
The paper is linked to above, and feel free to leave any questions about methodology or additional results in the comments.