Consuming online partisan news can stoke distrust in media in the long run

In a study published in PNAS, Simon Munzert and co-authors explore the effects of online partisan media on polarisation.

How online media may divide electorates has occupied public debate around the world. This issue came to a head in the United States in January 2021 when rioters, goaded by voter fraud claims spread by media and online, broke into the Capitol building hoping to overturn a federal election. New research exploring the effect of partisan news on political attitudes suggests that – in the long run – its consumption can erode trust in the media. 

A group of social scientists, including Hertie School Assistant Professor of Data Science and Public Policy Simon Munzert, used large amounts of data from a survey and experiment to explore what role partisan media play in social or political polarisation.

The results of their research were published on 29 March in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article,“The consequences of online partisan media,” was authored by Andrew Guess of Princeton University, Pablo Barberá of the University of Southern California, Munzert of the Hertie School’s Data Science Lab and JungHwan Yang of the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana.  

In a nationally representative online survey and experiment conducted during the 2018 US midterm elections, the researchers asked participants about their media consumption and incentivised them to consume either left- or right-leaning media over at least eight weeks. Their findings: Greater exposure to partisan news can cause people to visit certain websites and boost their knowledge of recent events in the short-term. But there is little evidence that this has a direct impact on their political opinions or behavior. Nevertheless, both treatments – left and right – may produce a lasting and meaningful decrease in trust in the mainstream media up to one year later, the researchers said.

“What we found were mixed results,” said Munzert. On the one hand, fears about the negative consequences of online partisan media are likely to be exaggerated, he said. “We don't find extreme effects on, say, partisan polarisation or attitudes or even voting behavior.”

What they did find, however, was that people became less trustful in the media – in particular the group exposed to right-leaning media. “This effect seemed to remain stable over a fairly long time-span. So while we don't think that exposure to online partisan media necessarily changes minds, it can make people more skeptical or less trustful in the long term.”

The researchers partnered with the online polling firm YouGov, an international research data and analytics group. They initially recruited 1,551 respondents from YouGov’s “Pulse” panel, which included users who had previously installed passive metering software on their desktop and mobile devices. This software collects in-depth data about online behaviors.

Participants agreed to join a “Politics and Media” study with multiple survey waves and could leave at any time.

In the first two waves, the researchers asked participants about the news they consume, their attitudes on domestic and foreign policy issues, whether they voted and their voting preferences, as well as if they approved of President Donald Trump. They also were asked to predict what might happen in the midterm elections. 

One issue the researchers faced was that people tend to self-select into certain media, so they may have held certain attitudes before exposure to partisan media. “Does media actually make people more extreme or were they extreme or partisan in the first place and then just consumed media?” asked Munzert.

In order to address this, the researchers performed an experiment in the third wave of the survey: they randomly  assigned people to groups and encouraged them consume two different popular media outlets – one left-leaning (Huffington Post) and one right-leaning (Fox News). Respondents were asked to make these pages into their browser homepage, with the idea that this would expose them more frequently to either left-leaning or right-leaning content. A third of the group wasn’t asked to change anything, becoming the “control” group.

The researchers surveyed the group over time to find out how their views changed after consuming the media. Those in the Huffington Post group visited approximately one additional page on the website per day, which amounted to nearly 50 seconds of additional browsing time. The Fox News group visited nearly four more pages per day, or an additional two minutes. Before the study, participants had only spent about 34 minutes per week on average on any news site

Study subjects were also able to recognise and recall recent political events and distinguish them from made-up events more accurately than those in the control group. This held true regardless of which news site they viewed. That said, their political beliefs and voting behaviors did not measurably change.

Find the full study at PNAS here.

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.