WASHINGTON D.C.: If American politics appears to have become more divided in the online era, a new study has found that congressional politicians who were more ideologically extreme had greater followings than their more moderate colleagues.
This is according to a Pew Research study that measured followers on Facebook against an ideological score calculated through their congressional roll call votes.
“The most liberal and most conservative House members had a median of 14,361 followers as of July 25, compared with 9,017 followers for those in the middle of the ideological spectrum,” wrote Adam Hughes and Onyi Lam, Pew Research.
Within the Senate, a similar picture emerged, as those who leaned right or left had a median 78,360 followers compared to moderates’ median of 32,626.
While it’s not clear exactly why more ideological members find more followers, another Pew study from February found that more liberal or conservative legislators were more likely to share content, typically disagreeing with a political matter – behaviour that was shown to find higher engagement on the social network.
Elsewhere, a report from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society explored the political divide in the US. While the report mentioned false news as part of the problem, the greater threat was the tendency of people to retreat into communities and toward media outlets and voices that reinforce their existing beliefs.
“Our data supports lines of research on polarization in American politics that focus on the asymmetric patterns between the left and the right, rather than studies that see polarization as a general historical phenomenon, driven by technology or other mechanisms that apply across the partisan divide,” the authors write.
The problem appeared to be more structural, meaning that “the efforts to find a technological fix … are much less likely to be either effective or normatively justifiable if they mean intentional disruption of a class of political communication desired by its recipients and intended to forge a powerful political connection within a substantial wing of the American public.”
Speaking to Motherboard, Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Harvard and one of the authors, said that the reinforcing of voters’ political identities through their media diet was part of the problem.
As a result, he said, “it becomes much harder to say, 'Oh Facebook and Google know what's true and Breitbart and Fox News don't, and so Facebook should get in the way of Breitbart getting to its users.' I am not comfortable living in a constitutional system where that is the recommendation."
Data sourced from Pew Research, DASH, Motherboard; additional content by WARC staff