Social media? No. Blame cable news for idiot politics.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump supporters, like these two, are more likely to be polarized by TV news than online echo chambers. AP Photo/Allen G. Breed

The last two election cycles have seen one burst of attention paid in “echo chambers” or communities where a narrow set of viewpoints makes people less likely to challenge their own views. Much of this concern has focused on the rise of social media, which it does radically transformed the information ecosystem.

However, when scientists investigated the echo chambers of social media, they found surprisingly little evidence of them on a large scale, or at least towards a scale large enough to warrant growing concerns. And yet, selective exposure to the news increases polarization. This suggested that these studies lost some of the picture of Americans’ news consumption patterns. Crucially, they failed to take into account an important component of the average American’s news experience: television.

To fill this gap, me and a group of researchers from Stanford Universitythe University of Pennsylvania i Research by Microsoft tracked the TV news consumption habits of tens of thousands of American adults each month from 2016 to 2019. We found four aspects of news consumption which, taken together, paint a disturbing picture of the television news ecosystem.

TV wins online

We first measured how politically isolated American news consumers actually are on TV and the web. Averaged over the four years of our observations, we found that approximately 17% of Americans are politically polarized (8.7% to the left and 8.4% to the right) based on their consumption of television news That’s three to four times higher than the average percentage of Americans polarized by online news.

Additionally, the percentage of Americans polarized by television reached a peak of 23% in November 2016, the month Donald Trump was elected president. A second peak occurred in the months leading up to December 2018, following the “blue wave” midterm elections in which a record number of Democratic campaign ads were broadcast on television. The timing of these two peaks suggests a clear connection between content choices and events in the political arena.

The 2018 midterm elections saw campaign ads reach new levels of partisanship.

Staying in the echo chambers of television

In addition to being more politically isolated on average, our research found that television news consumers are more likely than web consumers to maintain the same partisan news diets over time: After six months, the Left-leaning TV audiences are 10 times more likely to remain segregated than left-leaning online audiences, and right-leaning audiences are 4.5 times more likely than their online counterparts.

While these numbers may seem intimidating, it is important to note that even among TV viewers, about 70% of right-wing viewers and about 80% of left-wing viewers change their news diet in six months To the extent that long-term echo chambers exist, they only include about 4% of the population.

Narrow television diets

We found that partisan segregation among television audiences goes beyond left- and right-wing sources. We identified seven big buckets of TV news sources and then used those archetypes to determine what a typical unvarnished TV news diet actually looks like.

We found that, compared to online audiences, partisan television news consumers tend not to stray too far from their narrow sets of preferred news sources. For example, most Americans who mostly consume MSNBC rarely consume news from any source other than CNN. Similarly, most Americans who primarily consume Fox News Channel do not venture beyond that network. This finding contrasts with data from online news consumers, who still receive considerable amounts of news from outside their primary archetype.

People who get their news from MSNBC rarely go beyond MSNBC and CNN for their news consumption.
Mikeblog/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Distilling partisanship

Finally, we found an imbalance between partisan television news channels and the broader television news environment. Our observations revealed that Americans are moving away from national television news in general in substantial numbers, and notably, this exodus is coming more from centrist news buckets than left- or right-wing ones. Within the rest of the television news audience, we found a movement from broadcast news to cable news, with a trend toward MSNBC and Fox News.

Taken together, these trends reveal a counterintuitive finding: While overall TV news viewership is shrinking, partisan TV news viewership is growing. This means that the audience as a whole is in the process of being “distilled”: the remaining TV viewers are increasingly partisan, and the partisan share of TV news consumers is on the rise.

why does it matter

Exposure to opposing viewpoints is essential for functional democratic processes. It allows for self-reflection and tempers hostility towards political outgroups, while just interacting with like-minded people in political echo chambers makes people more entrenched in their own opinions. If echo chambers are really as widespread as recent attention has made them, it can have important consequences for the health of democracy.

Our results suggest that television, not network, is the main driver of partisan audience segregation among Americans. It’s important to note that the vast majority of Americans still consume relatively balanced news diets.

However, considering that the audience of partisan news only consumes more news minutes than the entire online news audienceperhaps it is worth devoting more attention to this huge and increasingly politicized part of the information ecosystem.


Homa Hosseinmardi is a Research Associate in Computational Social Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

the conversation
the conversation it arose out of deep concern about the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public sphere. Information has always been essential for democracy. It is a social good, like clean water. But now many find it hard to trust the media and experts who have been researching a topic for years. Instead, they listen to those with the loudest voice. These misinformed opinions are amplified by social media networks that reward those who provoke outrage rather than insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation aims to be part of the solution to this problem, raise the voice of real experts and make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation airs nightly at 9pm on FlaglerLive.
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