When thinking about topics like political candidates or social policies, we tend to seek information that backs up our existing opinions and beliefs while avoiding contrary views.
This is selective exposure, and Internet technologies are likely exacerbating this behavior, according to Ivan Dylko, an assistant professor in the communication department at the University at Buffalo.
“We tend to look for information that confirms our points of view,” says Dylko. “It bolsters self-esteem, helps us effectively cope with political information overload, but on the other hand, it means we’re minimizing exposure to information that challenges us.
“Technology allows us to customize our online information environment.”
Beyond Newsweek Versus Time
Dylko has developed a model, published in the journal Communication Theory, that explores customizability’s political impact and suggests how the “automatic and consistent inclusion, exclusion, and presentation of information” encourages political selective exposure. He has also conducted an experimental study to test his model, the subject of two research papers currently under peer review.
At first glance, selective exposure wouldn’t appear to be a product of the information age. Television viewers have historically made these choices. Newspaper readers once had to decide which local paper to read, just as magazine buyers had to choose between Time and Newsweek, for example. The same has been true of which people we chose to talk to and associate with for thousands of years.
But what media consumers did with print and broadcast is not the same process that emerges online, nor is the idea of selective exposure as intuitive as it might seem, with researchers divided on its consequences.
“Scholars disagree about whether the Internet makes us more politically closed-minded, or whether it exposes us to more politically diverse points of view,” says Dylko.
Customizability is what separates past print, broadcast, and face-to-face realities from present online communication realities. Users now have an unprecedented amount of information to deal with, which forces them to be more selective than ever; they have an unprecedented diversity of content choices, which allows them to find content that matches their beliefs and attitudes more closely than ever; and they have customizability technology that provides nearly complete control over the information they receive.
“In a two-newspaper town, readers still might look at the rival paper in addition to their favored publication because the newspaper choices were relatively limited, but online readers can find and then spend hours looking only at content that perfectly fits their psychological and political preferences,” according to Dylko.
Presets on old radio panels or print subscriptions might appear to be customizability’s ancestors. But pushing a button or dropping a renewal form in the mail required conscious choices.
Facebook and the ‘Filter Bubble’
Online, the process is automatic, sometimes user driven, but also system driven, often occurring without a user’s knowledge—an idea labeled “filter bubble” and popularized by political activist and Internet entrepreneur Eli Pariser.
Facebook, which 63 percent of its users say serves as a news source, according to Pew Research Center, is built on customizability. Users add and remove friends, events, and groups from their environment while the site analyzes all of this activity and determines what personal news cycle to present. The same is true of Twitter and other websites.
Customizability has been a topic for exploration in marketing, information science, and educational psychology, but has not been deeply analyzed in political communication.
“Technologies often have unintended consequences,” Dylko says. “The model published in Communication Theory describes how these customizability technologies, initially designed to help us cope with information overload, lead to detrimental political effects. Specifically, they increase political selective exposure, making us more surrounded with like-minded information and, potentially, making us more politically polarized.”