Browser plugin helps people balance their political news reading habits

Sep 27, 2012
When someone who has installed the Balancer plugin clicks in the upper right-hand corner of the browser, a cartoon pops up to show the degree of political balance in their online reading. Credit: S. Munson, Univ. of Washington

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, many voters become voracious consumers of online political news. A tool by a University of Washington researcher tracks whether all those articles really provide a balanced view of the debate – and, if not, suggests some sites that offer opinions from the other side of the political spectrum.

Balancer, a free plug-in for 's Chrome browser, was developed this summer by Sean Munson, a new UW assistant professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering. The tool analyzes a person's online reading habits for a month and calculates the political bias in that behavior. It then suggests sites that represent a different point of view and continues to monitor reading behavior and offer feedback.

"I was a bit surprised when I was testing out the tool to learn just how slanted my own reading behavior was," Munson said. "Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior. If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?"

The tool classifies more than 10,000 news websites and sections of news websites on a spectrum ranging from far left to far right, using results of previous studies and existing media-bias indices. For a few popular sites the tool also tries to classify individual columnists whose views may be different from those of the overall publication's slant.

If a reader's habits swing to one side of the spectrum, the tool will suggest top on the other side. As more people start using the tool, it will instead suggest articles currently popular among who show a different political bias. People who install the tool get a cartoon of a tightrope walker holding a stick with a red block on one end and a blue block on the other end. If their reading is balanced, the blocks are equal and the stick is level. If not, the stick begins to tilt to one side as the character appears increasingly distressed. The experimental tool is now used by a few dozen people, and researchers hope to recruit more before the November election.

It's not perfect. While the tool tracks all the reading in that Web browser, it misses reading on mobile browsers, through mobile apps and, of course, reading on paper. Munson also would like to develop more targeted ways to classify individual articles and to include more than just Democrat and Republican slants.

The was developed at the University of Michigan, where Munson earned his doctorate, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Back when cable news talk shows and the Internet first emerged, Munson said, many experts feared they would fragment news consumers into ideologically specific camps. Instead, it seems some people gravitate toward coverage that reinforces their opinions, he said, while other people use technology to seek out more diverse coverage. His research seeks to understand people's habits and learn how technology might influence their behaviors.

"Depending on whether I wake up on the right or wrong side of the bed I either think that there's this incredible potential for political discussion online, if we could only get it right, or that it's just this huge problem," he said.

Munson started a political blog as a high school student in New Jersey, and in his junior year in college he was awarded press credentials to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"My goal with the blog had been to have a dialogue and in the process educate myself about politics," he said. But he found most of his readers already shared his opinions. "In the end I didn't feel like there was any sort of deliberative discussion or progress made, and I hadn't learned a lot in the process." He stopped posting and deleted the blog.

His research now explores ways the Internet might be used to encourage constructive political dialogue, as opposed to the echo chamber of partisan sites or what he describes as the "appalling cesspool" of some online comments. Munson is also teaching a UW research class this quarter on the Internet and the 2012 election, which will explore topics such as reading habits, the spread of political rumors online and the intersection of preferences and social networking sites.

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More information: balancestudy.org/balancer/

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Ophelia
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 27, 2012
Out of curiosity I installed this and the first thing it did was want me to answer a survey related to viewpoints etc. No idea what the information was needed for since the whole purpose of the thing is to gauge the balance in the articles you read. There isn't any reason that information is necessary to gauge an article's position on the political spectrum.

I uninstalled it immediately.
xX_GT_Xx
5 / 5 (3) Sep 27, 2012
Piffle. Too many issues are not a matter of opinion. Since this is a science-oriented site, we know that some sides are just wrong. Creationists and the FRC types that claim humans and dinosaurs cohabitated are not offering differing interpretations of the facts, they're making stuff up. Reading 50% fact based articles and 50% fabrications is not balance, it's stupid.
Claudius
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 27, 2012
A few years ago if you went to Google and did a search for images of Tiananmen Square, you got pictures of protesters. But on the Chinese Google site, you got pictures of scenic Tiananmen Square, with children, flowers, etc.

Now Google is doing the same thing, only getting you to volunteer for it. Scary. Creepy.
JoeBlue
3 / 5 (4) Sep 28, 2012
I do not see how basing your view's on what another person considers to be a part of some imaginary political scale is going to be constructive of much at all. If anything I see this as something to gather information Google can sell to marketers and PAC's. There's nothing Scientific about Politics. Even the ridiculous Poli Sci term is a loaded insult to intellectual honesty.
Meyer
3 / 5 (2) Sep 28, 2012
The tool classifies more than 10,000 news websites and sections of news websites on a spectrum ranging from far left to far right

So, it's like traveling the world without ever leaving the equator.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2012
Rather than balancing out political persuasions, it would be much more useful to have some sort of plug-in or whatever that would alert me if I were visiting sites that promote emotionally laden dogma vs. dispassionate, fact-oriented presentation.

I like reading a variety of political views, but I get annoyed when some article tries to grip my emotions. Or otherwise employ rhetoric vs. trying to honestly present information.
freethinking
1 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2012
If you trust a Progressive company like Google to give balance in politics, then you also trust that the MSM is unbiased.
chromosome2
not rated yet Sep 28, 2012
I would rather have a plugin to ensure that the site I'm viewing isn't funded or otherwise contaminated by reality-denial organizations.