Here’s why Twitter isn’t the echo chamber you think it is

Over the years, Twitter has been hailed for opening us up to a greater diversity of perspectives, disparaged for acting as an echo chamber, and vilified for creating a polarizing environment that nudges us to ever-more extreme positions.

None of these characterizations is exactly right, according to new research published in MIS Quarterly.

According to the study, authored by Questrom’s Jesse Shore and Chrysanthos Dellarocas, along with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Jiye Baek (PhD ’18), most of us are exposed to content from a wide variety of sources, but post more moderate content than what we take in. A small group with outsize impact did almost the opposite.

Shore says that research stemmed from relatively simple questions. “We wondered, for example, if liberals always posted and read liberal news sources, and conservatives posted and read from conservative ones,” says Shore.

To study the issue, the team focused on the political slant of news sources delivered to users’ feeds and the slant of sources that those users linked to in tweets for public consumption. As part of the study, the trio rated the overall slant of nearly 200 news sources and analyzed more than 900,000 tweets.

They found that a tiny minority of extremely active users with high follower counts received posts with links to news sources across political spectrum, but then reliably posted polarized, more partisan content than what they received. According to Shore, these users tended to hold positions in which they were expected to be aware of news and politics.

The vast majority of users, however, read posts that were more partisan than what they publicly posted.

For the authors, the study helps provide a clearer picture of how people communicate on social media and why certain perceptions about the medium persist. People may assume that we’re exceptionally polarized on Twitter, but that’s only because the most prominent voices on the platform — both prolific and popular — were far more likely than the average user to post partisan content. “I hope this study helps move the public conversation beyond the notion of echo chambers,” says Shore. “In many ways Twitter users are the opposite of the way they are described in the press: they are exposed to diverse information, but post more moderately.”

Read the complete study, “Network Structure and Patterns of Information Diversity on Twitter” on MIS Quarterly.

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