Online "echo chambers" most prominent at the political fringes

4 February 2017

Demos logoThe "echo chamber" effect online is greatest among those furthest from the political mainstream, finds a new report from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at leading cross-party think tank, Demos.

  • New study from Demos think tank captures a significant "echo chamber" effect on social media among supporters of political parties in the UK.
  • The study, commissioned by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, suggests the effect is stronger on the edges of the political spectrum, with UKIP and SNP supporters most likely to share news sources, discuss topics and communicate with people with whom they are politically aligned.
  • Conservative supporters were more likely than those identifying with less mainstream parties to interact with social media users outside their own political party, and the mainstream parties tended to share content from more centrist news sources.
  • The BBC and mainstream digital and televised media were most likely to cut across party political allegiances.

Demos worked with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT on the study exploring the impact of how digital technology is effecting UK politics and society.

Analysing the Twitter habits of 2,000 users who openly support the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP or the SNP, the Demos study found a tendency for all users to engage most with people and media sources that share their political outlook. However this trend is most pronounced outside the political centre.

While a link was found between users’ political orientation and where they get their news, most users still tend towards mainstream outlets, such as major TV stations and national newspapers. The BBC is popular across the political spectrum, with roughly a quarter of shares coming from supporters of each party.

Users who identified with Labour or the SNP rarely share links to news providers with more right-wing outlooks, like the Sun or the Daily Mail, and Conservative and UKIP supporters were less likely to engage with sites such as the Guardian or the New Statesman. UKIP supporters were overwhelmingly responsible for shares of so-called alternative media such as Breitbart or Infowars.

While all users are most likely to engage with other users within their own political group, interaction between supporters of different parties is more common on the right than the left. Monitoring direct replies, retweets and mentions, the study found 74% of users replied to by members of the Labour group, were also Labour supporters, compared to 61% of the Conservative group’s replies being to other Conservatives. Likewise, 66% of accounts mentioned by Labour users were other supporters, compared to 49% of mentions by Conservative supporters being other Conservatives.

The UKIP and SNP groups could most strongly be defined as “echo chambers” in terms of both the media they share and the accounts they retweet, with very little overlap between the two, and the ten most popular accounts retweeted by the SNP group receiving 99% or 100% of their retweets from users within the group.

Supporters of the more mainstream Conservative and Labour parties were most likely to engage users outside their own group: the most retweeted accounts within these groups had much broader appeal, with just 42% and 67% of their retweets respectively coming from those identified with the same party.

Conversations across party lines still reflect an ideological divide. Conservative and UKIP supporters are more likely to mention each other than interact with supporters of other parties: 26% of those mentioned by Conservatives identified with UKIP; only 14% and 11% identified with Labour or the SNP. This trend is reflected among SNP and Labour supporters, who are most likely to interact with one another.

Only a minority of social media users publish their political affiliation, so this research effectively maps the networks of Twitter’s “political classes”. Many do not engage in online political debates at all, and the control group in this study, made up of users who do not publicly identify with any party, demonstrate far less interest in tweeting links to news sites or engaging with political figures.

Commenting on the findings, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, Researcher in the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, said:

“This study paints a mixed picture of the state of British political discussion online. On the one hand, there is strong evidence to suggest that when we use the web to learn about the world, the majority of us are likely to encounter a mixed bag of opinions. On the other, the disaffection with the political mainstream is mirrored in the growing influence of partisan media sources that favour one-sided polemic over fact.

The research should act as a reminder to anyone using the web to learn about the world that it isn’t always geared to give us the best chance of an informed view. Compromise, the ability to process a diverse range of opinion and, above all, an acceptance of some kind of shared reality and truth are central to a functioning democracy. All are threatened by the echo chamber effect.”

David Evans, Director of Policy at BCS said: “Technology is re-writing the social contracts that govern our society, affecting everything from child development to politics. What this research shows is not so much a new set of human behaviours, but amplification of human tendencies with new results. We need to increase our collective self-knowledge, and make sure we don’t lose sight of what binds our communities together. At a point where use of social platforms is still a choice made by a percentage of the population, this study shows the potential for fracturing of our shared experience. As more of our life moves online, and as generations emerge who see no distinction between the online and offline, we are unleashing chaotic forces that will change how our society governs itself. This study needs to be followed by many more, and by reflection and discussion amongst anyone who cares about the state of our society now and in the future.”

Read the full report

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