In the months surrounding the election, many were quick to place blame on the internet and social media for increased political polarization. But a new study by a University economist shows that the echo chambers of social media may not be so resonant after all.
In his study, Professor of Economics Jesse Shapiro found that internet and social media use have not contributed greatly to increased political polarization between 1996 and 2012.
To test this, Shapiro and co-authors Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow from Stanford University used data from the American National Election Studies, which questions respondents about their political preferences, Boxell said. Researchers found that Americans aged 75 and older became more politically polarized over time than their younger counterparts but used social media less frequently.
“Essentially what we see is that the people with the lowest exposure to internet have experienced the largest changes in polarization (from) 1996 to 2012,” Boxell said. This finding is counter to their hypothesis, as the researchers expected that younger Americans would experience more polarization.
The upward trend in political polarization is not limited to eras with internet use, Boxell said. “At least for the measures we looked at and the index we constructed, we see a consistent upwards trend in political polarization since 1972.”
The paper did not address what could be causing the increased political polarization but emphasized that the trend occurs across all demographics. “It seems likely that whatever it is, (it’s) something that’s also demographically fairly broad,” Shapiro said. He cited the United States’ growth in inequality as a possible contributing factor.
“Our paper doesn’t rule out that the internet may play a role,” Boxell said. But if it does,“it’s most likely a small role relative to the overall big picture.”
Since the 2016 presidential election, political polarization in America has been a focus of national discussion. Though the researchers had been interested in these topics for a long time, “the election obviously brought them to the foreground and made it even more exciting to be working on these problems,” Shapiro said.
Susan Short, director of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown, which supported the research, echoed Shapiro’s statement and emphasized the need for scientific studies that investigate political trends.