Beyond selective exposure


Whenever possible, I get my news from local pizza joints' Facebook accounts. Still waiting for somebody to break the pizza donation story, Wisconsin State Journal!

In the wake of massively increased ideological media availability (particularly cable news analysis shows and blogs), many political communication scholars have become concerns about the effects of selective exposure — that is, what happens when we choose to only or predominantly use media sources we believe will present agreeable viewpoints or information. This general area of interest has produced a variety of findings, from the obvious (Republicans love Fox News) to the less obvious but intriguing (people who only read blogs they agree with are much more likely to engage in political participation than those who read ideologically diverse blogs). But one thing it hasn’t done much of is challenge the notion of what exposure is, or what types of sources we’re being “exposed” to.

A confluence of two things has brought this to mind. First, along with my colleague Narayanan Iyer and several grad students, I’m prepping a study that looks at the agenda-setting potential of Facebook among college students. In a more general sense, we’re interested of how much influence the inadvertent exposure to news information might have on a low-information audience. In this case, we talking about a very different kind of exposure than one gets from institutional media sources (and I’m thinking of blogs as institutional here), as well as a case where the “selection” has nothing to do with the news content that might appear in your Facebook news feed. Rather, selections are made based on some combination of social connection and social distance. Our “friends” are our family members, classmates and co-workers, but they’re also people we’ve met fleetingly or maybe even have never met in person. There is some evidence of ideological clustering within the Facebook network (see this article by Gaines and Mondak), but there’s no reason to suspect this is any different than the clustering that occurs in offline social networks.

The second thing that happened was that, as a former member of a Wisconsin public employee union, my news feed exploded with updates from my friends are still in the state and involved in the ongoing protests. Some of what’s been posted has been links to news stories, background information, analysis, etc., but most of it has been first- or secondhand accounts from protesters themselves. I’m finding this an unusual experience, because as a voracious news consumer, it’s pretty rare that my Facebook friends post anything I don’t already know about. Now that they’ve become part of the news, Facebook has become my primary source of information about the protests and developments surrounding them. A lot of what they’re posting is not ideologically tinged in the typical sense — that is, it’s not just a bunch of anti-Scott Walker screeds — but rather it’s broadly framed in ways that are sympathetic to the protesters’ concerns. It’s also informative in a way that traditional news coverage has not been, and clearly appeals to me in part because of the minute social distance between myself and my friends. These are people who, apart from being friends, are demographically similar to me, work in the same sector and share a similar disposition toward political engagement. I’m wondering now if the effects of this type of news consumption — both agenda and opinion effects — might not be much stronger than those of reading more distant ideologically agreeable sources, even for a heavy news consumer like me.

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