Sunday, December 04, 2011

Social media and the future of (polarized) news - a primer for 2012

With an eye toward the 2012 election cycle, my colleague Matthew C. Nisbet at American and I recently summarized some of the recent trends in how journalists and audiences use new (social) media and what it means for the political process.  Here are a few excerpts from the pre-publication version of a chapter we wrote for the next volume of Communication Yearbook:
[Excerpt from:  Scheufele, D. A., & Nisbet, M. C. (forthcoming). Online news and the demise of political debate. In C. T. Salmon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook (Vol. 36). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. | PDF]
[W]ith more Americans saying that they get their news on a daily basis from online sources than from local newspapers (Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 2010), the presentation, selection, and availability of news is no longer chiefly controlled by journalists.  Nor is the primary goal to attract diverse audiences to a hierarchically organized portfolio of coverage defined by an entire broadcast or newspaper edition. Instead, the objective is to lure a combination of habitual and incidental news consumers to specific online stories by way of search engines, aggregators, and social networks.  This strategy allows news organizations to maximize page views while also tracking and selling personal information about consumers via third party partners such as Facebook.  At least three related trends enable this goal.  
a. Opinionated news and niche audiences:  The proliferation of niche cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News and highly specialized online information environments such as Huffington Post or The Daily Caller have led to an increasing fractionalization of news choices and audiences.  Driven by commercial concerns, much of this fractionalization has occurred along partisan fault lines.  Or as Rachel Maddow put it: “Opinion-driven media makes the money that politically neutral media loses.” (Maddow, 2010, p. 22).  And as more recent research shows, these fragmented news environments have the potential to produce more apathy among some segments of the electorate and more partisan polarization across the population overall (Prior, 2007). 
b. Algorithms as editors:  The increasing shift toward online presentation of news, even among traditional news outlets, has also provided media organizations with new real-time metrics of audience preference and the ability to make decisions about news selection and placement based on these metrics.  This use of “algorithms as editors” (Peters, 2010) is not without pitfalls. Increasing the influence that reader preferences have on story selection and placement also increases the likelihood of a spiral of mutual reinforcement.  In other words, stories that readers selectively attend to will be placed more prominently on news(paper) web sites, which – in turn – increases the odds of readers finding them in the first place.  This makes it easy for readers to select content based on popularity, interest, or political identity; opting out of the professional hierarchy of front page headlines and lead stories that might appear in a printed newspaper or broadcast.

c. Self-reinforcing search and tagging spirals: This notion of reinforcing spirals is exacerbated in online search environments where search engine rankings and search suggestions can heavily influence the overall information infrastructure. The process depends not only on the algorithms used by search engines but also on the tagging and optimization strategies pursued by news content providers, aggregators, bloggers, and interest groups (Hindman, 2009).  Examining the presentation of scientific information online, Ladwig and colleagues (Ladwig, Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2010), for example, found that the “suggest” function in Google’s search results often did not correspond to the online information environment that was available to audiences (based on systematic analyses of the complete population of web sites and blogs).  As a result, the guidance provided by Google search suggestions is likely to disproportionally drive traffic, regardless of the content available, and create a self-reinforcing spiral that reduces the complexity and diversity of the information that citizens encounter online (Ladwig, Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2010).
 
... Many of these more media-centric filters work in tandem with individual-level behaviors and choices.  Prior’s (2007) hypotheses about the polarizing effects of increasing channel diversity, for instance, are based heavily on the assumption that individuals actively make choices about the content (news vs. entertainment) that they attend to.  But the social texture that is developing in web 2.0 information environments produces a communication landscape in which at least two new modes of audience-centric selectivity that are likely to influence news choices. 
a. Automated selectivity: In online environments, news portals and aggregator sites allow for highly effective individual pre-selection of the information that reaches us. iGoogle, myYahoo and other news aggregators allow audiences to selectively receive and attend to news items, based on a set of fine-grained filters that can include medium, outlet, content, author and a host of other pre-defined criteria.  In contrast, visitors to the landing page for online newspapers may be able to skim or skip stories that they disagree with or find boring, but they will have a hard time making a selective choice without at least briefly glancing at the lead or headline.  Portals and other news aggregators – in contrast – will make sure that some stories never even reach our computer screen. Smart phones, tablets and other portable devices make it easier to skim and select when consuming news, creating further incentives for news organizations to cater to this selectivity in their design of mobile applications.
b. Networks as filters: This individual-level set of filters, however, is being complemented by maybe even more effective social filters. Based on a series of experiments about online information use patterns in various social settings, Messing and colleagues (2011), for example, predict that “social information, and especially personal recommendations, will emerge as the most important explanatory factor shaping both the media environment to which an individual is exposed, and the content that the individual chooses to view” (p. 29). 
And the notion of networks as selective filters may be more prevalent than we think. Seventy-five percent of online news consumers now say they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites (Purcell et al., 2010), i.e., information that is passed along and preselected by people who are strongly likely to share their worldviews and preferences.  And much of this information is not presented in an isolated news environment, similar to traditional newspapers or television broadcasts, but instead is socially contextualized almost immediately by a host of reader comments, Facebook “like” buttons, and indicators of how often a story has been re-tweeted.
The potential effects of such social-level contextualization on individual news selection are less clear, and two competing hypotheses can be put forth ... The first hypothesis suggests that we may be moving toward a society where we are less and less exposed to (and less and less used to) disagreement and viewpoints that are different from our own.  Highly like-minded and homophilic networks, in other words, may exacerbate the effects of individual-level selectivity and produce an even more fine-grained filter for incoming information.  The result would be a very pronounced spiral of self-reinforcing attitude polarization ... Journalists and other professional groups such as scientists are likely to be part of this attitude polarization; since these groups tend to be disproportionately like-minded in their political outlook, are heavier users of online news sources and social media; and face greater demands on their time in managing and using information (Besley & Nisbet, forthcoming; Donsbach, 2004).  
A number of recent studies, however, provide some preliminary evidence for a more optimistic hypothesis. It is based on the assumption that friendship networks may often be more politically diverse than the individuals in these networks perceive them to be.  In other words, “friends disagree more than they think they do” (Goel, Mason, & Watts, 2010, p. 611). This also means that socially homophilic networks may be characterized by more political diversity than we often assume.  Messing et al (2011), in fact, infer that socially-networked information environments can “create at least marginally more cross-cutting exposure to political information” (p. 30) than situations where individuals select news items without additional social cues.  
It remains to be seen if these findings are replicated in future work and socially-networked information environments can in fact increase exposure to non-likeminded views.  If they do, they could produce some of the same beneficial outcomes that we outlined in our work on heterogeneous face-to-face networks (Scheufele et al., 2006; Scheufele et al., 2004) ... It is clear that communication researchers have only begun to fill in parts of a large grid of research questions which will have to be answered in the near future. …  Whatever the answers may be that we as a discipline provide, they will have important implications for how we conceptualize and measure communication effects, effectively design online media, educate professionals and the public, and regulate media content and platforms. But more importantly, they will raise normative questions about the future of a media system that – driven by media-centric or audience-centric shifts – no longer provides a commonly shared and professionally defined hierarchy of stories and ideas.
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