Does the Web Turn Us Into Partisans?

The Internet provides an infinity of stuff, but it's all too easy to siphon off oneself in a cozy, ideologically uniform echo chamber of information -- or disinformation. You might expect that the searchable, personalized architecture of the Internet might guarantee that we find the information we're looking for rather than the information that we need to know.

But a fascinating new paper from NBER says that's not exactly how the Internet works. The authors find that online news consumption is much less ideologically segregating than face-to-face interactions, but more segregating than offline news consumption. Ryan Avent concludes "The internet, if anything, provides a counter to the more ideologically homogeneous circles of friends, families, and colleagues in which we operate daily."

There's a more pessimistic way to interpret the findings. Imagine online news consumption, from newish e-magazines (eg Slate) to blogs like at The Atlantic and Economist, as a halfway mark between offline news consumption and face-to-face interactions. Many of them are, as Andrew Sullivan likes to say, a broadcast of the writer's opinions rather than an iterative publication. A good broadcast is powerful, but also personal and emotional. In that light, online news takes the offline news model and slow-walks it toward the ideological homogeneity of social circles. Avent's right. We're not there yet. But it's a slow-walk.

The Web might not be turning us into partisans. But it gives our partisanship the chance to marinate in partisan news -- a lot of it, accessible from anywhere. Newspapers have been somewhat partisan for centuries. Magazines even more so. But even if Web readers are merely consuming the news we've always read, but pixelated rather than printed, it is a little disappointing that having been offered a universe of content, readers are probably sticking to their ideological solar systems.