NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 21, 2010

Is the Internet good for Democracy?  Critics have worried that instead of a public square, we could end up with a collection of information cocoons.  Their fear is that the Internet might lead to a more ghettoized, polarized and insular electorate.  Yet new research complicates this picture, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.  

Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, both of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, have measured ideological segregation on the Internet.  The methodology is complicated but can be summarized through a geographic metaphor, says Brooks: 

  • Think of the Fox News site as Casper, Wyo.; if you visited and shook hands with the people reading the site, you'd be very likely to be shaking hands with a conservative.
  • The New York Times site, they suggest, is like Manhattan; if you shook hands with other readers, you'd probably be shaking hands with liberals.  

The study measures the people who visit sites, not the content inside, says Brooks: 

  • According to the study, a person who visited only Fox News would have more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of Internet news users.
  • A person who only went to the Times' site would have more liberal overlap than 95 percent of users.  

But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities.  Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.  Even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into areas where most visitors are not like themselves, says Brooks: 

  • People who spend a lot of time on Glenn Beck's Website are more likely to visit the New York Times' site than average Internet users.
  • People who spend time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to than average Internet users.
  • And they're not even following links most of the time; they have their own traveling patterns.  

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association -- like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups.  You're more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood. 

Source: David Brooks, "Busting the Internet 'ideological bubble' myth," Dallas Morning News, April 20, 2010. 

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