AR; selective exposure and echo chambers

In a recent article of the JCMC, R. Kelly Garrett revisits the topic of selective exposure – the concept describing the phenomenon that people tend to consume media that falls in line with their opinion.

While there is considerable evidence for people seeking information that strengthens their existing opinion, evidence also shows that filtering out contradicting opinion is not so widespread as thought/feared by many (e.g. Sunstein).

This is because, argues Garrett, there are two sides, two components to selective exposure: seeking opinion reinforcement, and aversion to opinion challenge; BUT these factors do not equally play a part in forming out media consumption habits. Rather, the former is more important than the latter.

In order to test this hypothesis, the author set up an experiment which lead to the following findings.

  1. People do tend to favour opinion reinforcing news items. (Based on clues such as the headline and the lead, people will tend to pick such newspaper articles to read which seem to be reinforcing their opinion on the article’s subject matter.)
  2. With other factors unchanged, the more confirming the article’s opinion, the longer time readers will spend reading it.
  3. The more opinion challenge is expected from the article (i.e. the more contradicting to one’s own views it seems from clues such as the headline and the lead), the lower the chance that it will be selected for reading (“aversion to opinion challenge”), BUT:
  4. aversion to opinion challenge is LESS important in selecting material to read than seeking opinion reinforcement, AND:
  5. the more challenging is an article to one’s own views, the LONGER time one will spend reading it, presumably in order to “challenge the challenge,” i.e. to familiarize oneself with the contradicting arguments, to look for counter-arguments – to try to resolve the conflict of opinions somehow.


“People do not seek to completely exclude other perspectives from their political universe, and there is little evidence that they will use the Internet [sic] to create echo chambers, devoid of other viewpoints, no matter how much control over their political information environment they are given. To the contrary, the longer read times associated with opinion-challenging information suggest that people may wish to maintain awareness of diverse political views (while ensuring that their own beliefs are well supported. […] The results here suggest that the worry that the internet will lead to an increasingly fragmented society appears to have been overstated.”

This is grounds for optimism, then – although Garrett himself notes that more and more sophisticated filtering mechanisms of news sites might increase the effect of aversion to opinion challenge.

It lead me to think about the concept of filtering; and the fact that filtering can be automated with a high degree of success according to the topics of articles – but filtering the articles according to the opinion they represent will always be a manual, and presumably highly imperfect task, as long as computers cannot interpret textual material. You can choose not to care about a particular issue – say, gun ownership rights -, but once you’re interested in the issue, it is much harder to filter out articles that are of a particular opinion on the topic.

Come to think of it, this is probably not something many people would do anyway, at least not consciously. I don’t think many people would give a flat-out positive answer to a question as “would you in the future like to avoid articles that contradict your opinion on this topic?” I’d like to think the answer in most cases would be a no-brainer “no”; because phrasing the question in such a way already entails that this is something you should NOT do; as an intelligent media consumer, you should not limit yourself to a particular opinion.

Which is why, I’d argue, opinion filtering happens on another level, by designating particular sources to avoid – probably with some kind of added rationalization, such as “I don’t read this newspaper not because it often publishes opinion contradicting mine, but because I don’t believe they are objective in their reporting.”

…and which is why, again, social news sites seem important: for on these sites users don’t select among sources, but among particular articles – possibly resulting in a greater variety of articles, challenging the idea of selected exposure.

R. Kelly Garrett: Echo chambers online?: Politically motivated selective exposure among Internet news users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14 (2009) 265 – 285. ICA

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