Industries in Depth

It isn't social media that's shielding you from different political views. Here's why

A woman uses her Apple iPhone while waiting to cross 5th Avenue in New York, September 20, 2012.  Apple's iPhone 5 goes on sale tomorrow as Apple works to increase it's market share in the mobile phone market. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TELECOMS SOCIETY) - RTR387LK

People can easily form filter bubbles without social media. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Chris Weller
Ideas Reporter, Business Insider
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It's tempting to embrace the idea that social media platforms insulate people from conflicting political views.

But it turns out not to be true.

According to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the widely-held belief that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter create "filter bubbles" that reinforce people's political views is mostly made up.

"Blaming the Internet for the political climate today doesn't have much empirical support," Levi Boxell, a Stanford economics researcher and the lead author of the study, tells Business Insider.

Boxell says he and his colleagues wanted to figure out how much the internet actually polarizes people's political views. The team studied data from the American National Election Studies, a collection of surveys issued to American voters to gauge their attitudes and behaviors on a variety of issues.

The teams analyzed the data from 1996 to 2012, focusing on nine different measures. Those included how strongly linked someone's political party was to their ideological affiliation, how much time they spent online, and where they most often engaged in political discussion.

Overall, the researchers found that the people who are most likely to use the internet — those between the ages of 18 and 39 — were least likely to see their political views get polarized during the six years studied. The opposite was true for people 65 and older: Their views were the most likely to get entrenched during that time period, typically through other media, such as TV and radio.

Previous research, however, has found that online and offline media do wield about the same level of influence on people's beliefs. And the real-life social networks people keep — friends, family, and "political discussants," as Boxell puts it— are even stronger influences.

All that is to say people can easily form filter bubbles without social media, Boxell says.

So if you want to be as informed about a topic as possible, you should still listen to people who don't agree with you.

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