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The Polarizing Political Power of Newsfeed Customization

New research explores the impact our carefully curated exposure to politics online has on the way we see the world.

Image via (cc) Flickr user mbeo

New York Times or Wall Street Journal? Newsweek or Time? ABC or CBS?

For as long as human beings have learned about the world through the lens of mass media, we’ve also displayed preferences for which outlet—which TV network, newspaper publisher, or radio station—we get our news from.

However, in the internet age, something has changed. What once was a question of consciously selecting a preferred information source from among several has morphed into a world where people are bombarded with a near-endless stream of news options, and from which they often choose that which supports their existing beliefs. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon in and of itself, but thanks to the increasingly customizable nature of how we experience news online, through Facebook and Twitter, it’s one which is now bolstered by the systemic structure of our newsfeeds themselves—a hybrid of deliberate self-selection and passive, algorithmically driven reinforcement. We don’t just choose our news anymore; it, in turn, is also chosen—tailored, even—for us.

In “How Technology Encourages Political Selective Exposure,” Ivan Dylko, a professor of communications at the State University of New York at Buffalo, explores that interplay between active and passive online news consumption, and in doing so, sheds light on this uniquely modern dynamic. His paper, published last month in the journal Communication Theory, features a model created by Dylko, which highlights the specifically political ramifications of self-selecting news online. He concludes that by relying on customized news sources, shaped by and for our preferences, we’ve become ensconced in the “filter bubbles” (a term coined by entrepreneur Eli Pariser) that are reinforced by the medium itself. It’s that last point, the structural reinforcement, which separates this form of self-selection from that which came before it.

Put another way: the very tools we use to manage the overwhelming amount of data to be found online are, instead, causing us to become less receptive to differing political opinions.

As Futurity points out, customization has previously been studied in terms of marketing and basic information technology, but Dylko’s focus on the effect it has in the sphere of political communication is relatively new academic territory. “Technologies often have unintended consequences,” Dylko explains in a release. “The model published in Communication Theory describes how these customizability technologies, initially designed to help us cope with information overload, lead to detrimental political effects. Specifically, they increase political selective exposure, making us more surrounded with like-minded information and, potentially, making us more politically polarized.”

The moral? The more you rely on Facebook and Twitter to bring you the news, the less you might actually learn.

[Via Futurity]

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