Op-Ed Contributors: Is Media Driving Americans Apart? (NYT)

Op-Ed Contributors: Is Media Driving Americans Apart?

http://nyti.ms/2B5050y

In the 2016 election, President Trump was most popular among demographic groups least likely to use social media. According to our calculations, Mr. Trump gained support relative to Mitt Romney among non-internet-using voters, but actually lost support among internet-using voters. An analysis by the media researchers Keith Hampton and Eszter Hargittai likewise finds that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were more likely to use Twitter and Reddit than Mr. Trump’s supporters.

And polarization was climbing steadily long before the rise of social media. In our study, we find it has been growing since the 1980s — long before the internet, let alone Facebook or Twitter, became popular choices for media consumption. We see no clear increase in this trend in the period when digital sources were introduced.

Social media are likely to grow in importance over time, and none of these facts rule out its having important effects today. We should be concerned about the effects it has on its users, even if these users do not account for the bulk of overall polarization. Young voters who use social media may share polarized views with older voters who do not, and inflammatory content on social media can be picked up and amplified by more mainstream outlets. Nevertheless, we believe these and other data suggest social media are unlikely to be a main cause of rising polarization in America. We think it is important not to lose sight of other factors that may play a more important role.

The Fox Effect

Cable TV programming has become more ideologically polarized over time. Researchers found that Fox News had greater influence on elections than did MSNBC, particularly in 2004 and 2008.

If Fox hadn’t existed, change in the Republican nominee’s popular vote share (percentge points):

Ideological lean of networks

If MSNBC matched CNN ideologically, change in the Republican nominee’s popular vote share:

If Fox hadn’t existed, change in the Republican nominee’s popular vote share:

–0.5 percentage points in 2000 (popular vote winning margin: 0.5)

–3.6 in 2004 (winning margin: 3.0)

–6.3 in 2008 (winning margin: 7.3)

Ideological lean of networks

If MSNBC matched CNN ideologically, change in the Republican nominee’s popular vote share:

Which brings us back to television — and in particular, the rise of partisan cable like Fox News and MSNBC. A recent analysis using large-scale data identifies cable television news as a major contributor to polarization. This narrative arguably fits with the timing of the rise in interparty animus, and it is consistent with the rise in polarization among groups — such as the elderly — with limited internet use but high rates of television viewing.

We would also look to the behavior of politicians and the parties. Data from congressional roll-call voting show that the increase in polarization in the Senate and House started well before it can be detected for voters, and though elected leaders follow their constituents much of the time, they can also lead them. Today the parties seem to speak different languages, with Republicans talking about “illegal aliens” and “the death tax” while Democrats talk about “undocumented workers” and “the estate tax.” An analysis of the Congressional Record that Gentzkow and Shapiro conducted with the statistician Matt Taddy finds that this linguistic rift opened up right around the time of the Contract With America, when the Republican leadership adopted a successful strategy of using wordcraft to frame the issues of the day.

Where we suspect the most important causes lie is in the deeper structural changes that have caused the experiences of those in the red and blue parts of the country to diverge. A voter’s party identification is increasingly related to his or her position in the income distribution, with the top quintile containing disproportionately more Republicans. At the national level, income inequality and polarization in Congress track each other closely. Furthermore, congressional districts that were adversely affected by the rise of Chinese imports have been shown to elect less centrist representatives from both parties.

The social-media-as-villain narrative is gripping because it plays vividly to our fears. But that is not the only reason it holds such sway. It also lets us collectively off the hook. Why are half of Americans thinking and acting in ways the other half cannot comprehend? Why did one of those halves choose Donald Trump to be their president? Easy, the social media narrative would say: They were brainwashed. They were duped by the bad guys — fake news or Russian robots or big-data-driven algorithmically targeted psi-ops propaganda.

At some fundamental level, they don’t really mean what they are saying, and if only they weren’t so gullible or so vulnerable they would see things our way. To find solutions we don’t need to look at our own behavior, or values, or consumption patterns — we just need to beat the bad guys at the gate.

As tempting as that story is, it is at best incomplete. Like many inflection points in history, this one was probably not caused by any single change, but by the fact that many important changes happened to converge at the same time. The factors that likely matter the most are those that have caused the real experiences of Americans to diverge.

Continue reading the main story

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via NYT http://nyti.ms/2gVZ2VB

December 6, 2017 at 03:45AM