We are in the midst of a public conversation about whether social media echo chambers facilitate the spreading of fake news or prevent constructive dialogue on public issues. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that he was experimenting with features to reduce echo chambers on Twitter by inserting content with alternative viewpoints into people’s feeds. In response, an op-ed in The New York Times predicted that this idea would backfire, citing recent research showing that exposing people to alternate viewpoints only makes them more partisan. The problem with this otherwise important debate is that it assumes that Twitter users exist in echo chambers in the first place. They don’t.
We had the opportunity to study data from Twitter over a period of 12 days to evaluate how users share news across the entire network. (See “Related Research.”) We found localized evidence of polarization but no widespread evidence of echo chambers. (With polarization, people are aware of the “other side” and in conflict with it; in echo chambers, people are ignorant of other opinions because they are not exposed to them.) Specifically, the most active and highly followed 1% of users, whom we call core users, were as polarized as past research and conventional wisdom predicted, posting more partisan content than what they read. However, the vast majority of active users tended to be less polarized, posting more politically moderate content than what they read, on average. Our data also shows that typical Twitter users received news articles from across the political spectrum and core users followed an even more politically diverse group of Twitter accounts, so neither group lacked exposure to alternate views.
In addition to providing important context for current debates, our findings suggest new ways of thinking about engagement on social media.
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Understanding Twitter User Behavior
Typical Twitter users — the diverse, quiet, and, on average, moderating majority — turn to the social platform for a variety of personal and professional reasons. They follow friends, family, and people whose opinions and content they find interesting. They post original ideas, but they also like and retweet posts of others.