Caught in a political echo chamber? Listening to the opposition can make partisanship even worse

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Dwelling in a political echo chamber—where you encounter only people who agree with you—is hardly conducive to a healthy democracy.

But it turns out that broadening your horizons by perusing opposing points of view on may just make the partisan divide worse.

That's the depressing result of an unusual experiment involving 909 Democrats and 751 Republicans who spend a lot of time on Twitter.

"Attempts to introduce people to a broad range of opposing political views on a social media site such as Twitter might be not only ineffective but counterproductive," researchers reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Political polarization is on the rise in America, and the results aren't pretty, the study authors said.

"Americans are deeply divided on controversial issues such as inequality, gun control, and immigration," they wrote. "Partisan divisions not only impede compromise in the design and implementation of social policies but also have far-reaching consequences for the effective function of democracy more broadly."

The researchers, led by Duke University sociologist Christopher Bail, set out to do something about this problem by harnessing the power of Twitter.

They already knew people become more inclined to compromise on political issues when they spend time with people who hold opposing views. Face-to-face meetings can override negative stereotypes about our adversaries, paving the way for negotiation.

But whether these dynamics would extend to virtual interactions through social media was unknown.

So Bail and his colleagues hired YouGov to survey active Twitter users who self-identified as either Democrats or Republicans. Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with 10 statements like, "The best way to ensure peace is through military strength," and "Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy."

The researchers learned even more about the participants' partisan leanings by checking who they followed on Twitter and other publicly available information.

A week later, some of the Democrats were randomly selected to receive an apparently unrelated offer: For $11, would they be willing to follow an automated bot that retweets 24 items every day?

These Democrats weren't told that the retweets would originate from Twitter accounts belonging to politicians, pundits, nonprofit advocacy groups and media organizations aligned with Republicans.

Meanwhile, a randomly selected group of the Republican survey-takers got the same offer, and their Twitter bot retweeted messages from accounts aligned with Democrats.

The word most commonly retweeted by the liberal bot was "Trump," which appeared in its feed 256 times over the course of one month. "Tax" came in a distant second, showing up 93 times.

As it happened, these were also the two favorite words of the conservative bot, which mentioned "tax" 125 times and "Trump" 123 times.

After a month of reading tweets from the other side of the political spectrum, the participants re-took the original 10-item survey. So did the people who were not asked to follow the bots.

Compared to the Democrats who did not follow the conservative bot, those who did "exhibited slightly more liberal attitudes." The more they had paid attention to the bot's retweets (as measured by additional surveys), the more liberal their attitudes became. However, none of these changes were large enough to be statistically significant.

It was a different story for Republicans. Compared to those who did not follow the liberal bot, those who did "exhibited substantially more conservative views" after just one month. The greater the number of liberal tweets the Republicans absorbed, the more conservative they became. These results were statistically significant.

In other words, the experiment backfired.

But Bail and his colleagues from Duke, Brigham Young University and New York University said it's too soon to give up on the idea that social media can help bridge the partisan divide.

Twitter is certainly popular, but the majority of Americans still don't use it. That means the results of this experiment wouldn't necessarily predict how things would go if a similar initiative were rolled out to Americans as a whole, the researchers wrote.

Another cause for optimism: The bots retweeted messages from "elites," who tend to be "significantly more polarized than the general electorate," the study authors wrote. If instead the tweets had come from regular folks, people might have been more receptive to their messages.


Future research should determine "which types of messages, tactics, or issue positions ... might be more effective vehicles to bridge America's partisan divides," the team concluded.

Explore further

Neutral news perceived as biased depending on who shares it

More information: Christopher A. Bail et al. Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1804840115

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User comments

Sep 03, 2018
Any chance this could have something to do with the, uh, built in brevity of tweets making them a relatively obnoxious way to communicate complex points? I don't understand why the social media platform least conducive to "actual communication" was selected.

Sep 03, 2018
Among other things, a facet of the tragedy that so many believe government, big business, "science" are on the up and up. They believe that it must be true that contact necessarily makes someone alter their views. "Paving the way for negotiations". Why doesn't that work in Washington and geopolitically, then? Because everyone in a position of power is already in agreement with everyone else in power. Devoted to making themselves richer and trying to keep the "rank and file" down. "The best way to peace is a strong military". All political leaders are each others' friends. They'll try to order the "rank and file" around, but they all work for each other's aggrandizement. All the rules they give assuming government, stocks and all are necessarily systems that operate independently. So many don't realize all the stock events, wars, elections are planned by those in charge.

Sep 03, 2018
What an insane conclusion, free speech in a debate can only help. Unless it's quick no debate one liners that do no good at all. That's why Jordan Peterson has become so popular, his talks are long and well thought out. People (using their brains) are tired of one-liner politics and talk.

Sep 03, 2018
julianpenrod: But the problem with your theory (which is correct in that things get corrupt) is that things are better than ever in the world in history now. So regardless of the corruption (which is less than past history), we have: less crime, less poverty, longer lives, more electricity;throughout the world.

Things are better than ever, you're just spoiled.

Sep 03, 2018
"That's the depressing result of an unusual experiment involving 909 Democrats and 751 Republicans who spend a lot of time on Twitter."

That's the problem right there folks, spending a lot of time on Twatter. I don't think the people that spend 'a lot of time' on twatter is looking for a very serious debate to begin, but yeah, lets study twatter some more.

Sep 03, 2018
Perhaps if we all tried to relate to other people on a human level understanding that we can't know their life experiences the world might be just a little bit better.

Sep 03, 2018
There's also a factuality divide. But we mustn't mention that, we must portray the picture as one in which two sides move equally far from the center in identical ways. And only discuss people, not institutions.

Sep 03, 2018
What an insane conclusion, free speech in a debate can only help..
Oh no, free speech can swamp rationality in a society where wealth is concentrated, and in which spending money is legally identical to free speech. In that case, arbitrarily insane conclusions can dominate against both reasoned persuasion and proven facts.

Sep 04, 2018
ddaye says "Oh no, free speech can swamp rationality" ...

so what? you can't even THINK without free speech. You have to be allowed to BE WRONG. It's why the West is free, and Asia and the Islamic world isn't, and won't be for a long time.

Sep 06, 2018
As Koitsu pointed out, the medium is part of the problem. It encourages assertions at the cost of explanations.

A second, even bigger problem, is that what can bridge gaps are people beginning to see their opponents as people. Talking politics is not a good way to do that.

I knew someone involved in trying to improve Native American/white relations in a community after a massive treaty rights conflict. They had some success with some leaders on each side by having regular dinners together. At the dinners they could discuss anything but politics.

It wasn't a panacea, but it did create a measure of trust and of willingness to cooperate, when they had to wrangle over the hard stuff.

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