Study: Exposure To Opposing Points Of View Made Polarization Worse, Not Better

Oct 1, 2018

We’ve often heard that Facebook and Twitter are making it too easy to encase ourselves in bubbles of like-mindedness. We’ve been told that these echo chambers are fueling political polarization and that we should be exposed to differing opinions.

New research shows that idea might be wrong.

Researchers at Duke University thought that if they exposed Republicans and Democrats to opposing views on Twitter, their opinions might become more moderate.

That’s not how it turned out.

“For neither Republicans nor Democrats did we see a decrease in political polarization,” said Christopher Bail, Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Duke University and an author on the study. “For Democrats, we saw a very small increase in liberal views, but this effect wasn't statistically significant. On the other hand, for Republicans we saw a very large increase in conservative views.”

In October of 2017, Bail and his colleagues asked 1,200 Democrats and Republicans if they would be willing to receive financial compensation for following a “bot,” or an unmanned account that would automatically send them tweets.

The research subjects knew they would be following the accounts for one month and understood that the bots would tweet 24 times a day.

What they didn't know was that the bots that would expose them to messages from elected officials, opinion leaders, and media personalities from the opposing political party. The study had a control group and an experimental group. The research subjects responded to a list of political questions before and after the Twitter bot exposure. 

So why did the Republicans become more conservative while the Democrats stayed about the same? 

One explanation comes from cultural sociology and social psychology.

“This research tradition has shown that liberals and conservatives simply hold different value systems,” Bail said. “A central tenet of the conservative worldview is tradition, and inherent and that is resisting change.”

Conversely, the liberal worldview embraces diversity, reaching out, and actively engaging with other ideas, Bail said.

Another explanation is that people are taking cues from political leaders.

“If we look at patterns in the way that elected officials in the U.S. have voted over the last 20 to 30 years, we see a marked shift to the right among conservatives… and a very slight movement to the left among liberal elected officials,” Bail said.

Bail argues that it’s not time to give up reaching across the aisle and finding common ground. But it is a good idea to give up posting extreme views on social media. One thing the study shows is that Twitter may not be the best place for political discourse. 

“You know, there's very little to be gained by name calling or feeling right on social media at this point,” Bail said, adding that the most extreme points of view on social media are only held by a few people.

“If it's the case that I see someone like that, I may misunderstand that person as a representative of the other side. That creates a fundamental disconnect and can harden stereotypes and increase apathy,” he said.