Previous research has found that social media has a polarizing effect, creating echo chambers where people only interact with those who share similar political views. “Polarized Crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags,” said a Pew report.
However, a new study suggests otherwise. Researcher Pablo Barberá of New York University has published a study that examines how social media can actually reduce political polarization. He argues that social media help users connect with “weak ties” (for example, high school classmates you would never otherwise keep in touch with). Barberá hypothesized that “weak ties tend to be with people who are more politically heterogeneous than citizens’ immediate personal networks, [and] this exposure reduces political extremism.”
Barberá studied Twitter users in Germany, Spain and the U.S. by measuring their ideological positions and using those measurements to estimate the ideal points for each country. He also matched the names of certain Twitter users with voter files in a handful of U.S. states, and found:
Contrary to previous results in the literature on social media and political polarization, I find that social media does not increase political extremism. My analysis provides evidence that individuals who are embedded in heterogenous personal networks and who are exposed to dissonant political content become more moderate over time…
The most significant change associated with the increased usage of social media sites is the frequency of communication exchanges beyond the most immediate personal networks. Citizens are now exposed not only to their close friends’ opinions, but also to political content shared by their co-workers, childhood friends, distant relatives, and other people with whom they form weak ties.