Expert Commentary

Effects of the Internet on politics: Research roundup

A literature review of studies in the past few years that shed light on issues such as online political polarization.

Barack Obama online fundraising site (2012)
Barack Obama online fundraising site (2012 screengrab)

As the Internet plays a larger role in governance, campaigns and activism, the debate continues about how social and digital media are changing politics. Ongoing research is addressing topics such as whether or not the Internet is leading to increased political polarization — the tendency of like-minded individuals to cluster even closer together in their habits and viewpoints.

Although there is increasing skepticism about the real meaning of large-scale social media behavior in terms of its tangible impact for campaigns, some critics point out that journalists are not sufficiently keeping up with new, effective campaign tactics. Of course, the Obama-Romney race offers the latest case study in how politicians are deploying digital strategy and the consequences. Despite media narratives suggesting digital strategy in the 2012 reelection campaign of Pres. Obama proved decisive, some political scientists are already revising and challenging this interpretation.

Below are studies that bring a scholarly, data-driven perspective to questions within this area of inquiry. Special credit to George Washington University’s Henry Farrell, whose article in the Annual Review of Political Science, “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics,” usefully highlights some of the papers listed.


“Birds of a Feather Tweet Together: Integrating Network and Content Analyses to Examine Cross-Ideology Exposure on Twitter”
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 2013

Findings: The data show that “on Twitter, political talk is highly partisan, where users’ clusters are characterized by homogeneous views and are linked to information sources….” These dynamics likely “reinforce in-group and out-group affiliations, as literally, users form separate political groups on Twitter.” The more the tweets in a cluster reflected a political perspective, the more ideologically one-sided its content tended to be. “Politically active voices, particularly younger voters, who use the Internet to express their opinions are moving away from neutral news sites in favor of those that match their own political views.”


“A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization”
Nature, 2012

Findings: The data “suggest that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.” Further, “To put these results in context, it is important to note that turnout has been steadily increasing in recent U.S. midterm elections, from 36.3% of the voting-age population in 2002 to 37.2% in 2006, and to 37.8% in 2010.” The 340,000 additional votes attributed to Facebook messages represents “0.14% of the voting age population of about 236 million in 2010…. It is possible that more of the 0.60% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook.”


“Social Media and Political Engagement”
Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 2012

Abstract: “The use of social media is becoming a feature of political and civic engagement for many Americans. Some 60% of American adults use either social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, and a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that 66% of those social media users—or 39% of all American adults—have done at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media. 66% of social media users have employed the platforms to post their thoughts about civic and political issues, react to others’ postings, press friends to act on issues and vote, follow candidates, ‘like’ and link to others’ content, and belong to groups formed on social networking sites.”


“The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation”
The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2012

Abstract: “Social fragmentation and the decline of group loyalties have given rise to an era of personalized politics in which individually expressive personal action frames displace collective action frames in many protest causes. This trend can be spotted in the rise of large-scale, rapidly forming political participation aimed at a variety of targets, ranging from parties and candidates, to corporations, brands, and transnational organizations. The group-based ‘identity politics’ of the ‘new social movements’ that arose after the 1960s still exist, but the recent period has seen more diverse mobilizations in which individuals are mobilized around personal lifestyle values to engage with multiple causes such as economic justice (fair trade, inequality, and development policies), environmental protection, and worker and human rights.”


“Social Networking Sites and Politics”
Pew Research Center, March 2012

Findings: “Postings on social networking sites reveal surprises for many users when it comes to the political views of their friends. Nearly four in ten users discovered through postings by friends that their political beliefs were different than they thought. A small percentage of users blocked, unfriended or [hid] someone on the site because their postings were too frequent or they disagreed with them. Three-quarters of social networking site users say their friends post at least some content related to politics on the sites from time to time. They amount to 40% of the entire adult population.”


“Presenting Diverse Political Opinions: How and How Much?”
Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2011

Findings: “We examine the relationship between the numbers of supporting and challenging items in a collection of political opinion items and readers’ satisfaction, and then evaluate whether simple presentation techniques such as highlighting agreeable items or showing them first can increase satisfaction when fewer agreeable items are present. We find individual differences: Some people are diversity-seeking while others are challenge-averse. For challenge-averse readers, highlighting appears to make satisfaction with sets of mostly agreeable items more extreme, but does not increase satisfaction overall, and sorting agreeable content first appears to decrease satisfaction rather than increasing it.”


“Political polarization on Twitter”
Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 2011

Findings: “We examine two networks of political communication on Twitter, comprised of more than 250,000 tweets from the six weeks leading up to the 2010 U.S. congressional midterm elections. Using a combination of network clustering algorithms and manually annotated data we demonstrate that the network of political retweets exhibits a highly segregated partisan structure, with extremely limited connectivity between left- and right-leaning users. Surprisingly, this is not the case for the user-to-user mention network, which is dominated by a single politically heterogeneous cluster of users in which ideologically opposed individuals interact at a much higher rate compared to the network of retweets.”


“New Media and the Polarization of American Discourse”
Political Communication, 2008

Findings: “In this study, we seek to correct this oversight by content analyzing five online news sources — including wire services, cable news, and political blog sites — in order to compare their news judgments in the months prior to, and immediately following, the 2006 midterm election. We collected all stories from Reuters’ and AP’s “top political news” sections. We then investigated whether a given story was also chosen to appear on each wire’s top news page (indicating greater perceived newsworthiness than those that were not chosen) and compared the wires’ editorial choices to those of more partisan blogs (from the left:; from the right: and cable outlets ( We find evidence of greater partisan filtering for the latter three Web sources, and relatively greater reliance on traditional newsworthiness criteria for the news wires.”


“Ideological Segregation Online and Offline”
Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2011

Findings: “Focusing on online news consumption, offline news consumption, and face-to-face social interactions, we define ideological segregation in each domain using standard indices from the literature on racial segregation. We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers or family members. We find no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time.”


“Self-segregation or Deliberation? Blog Readership, Participation and Polarization in American Politics”
Perspectives on Politics, 2010

Findings: “We find that blog readers gravitate toward blogs that accord with their political beliefs. Few read blogs on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum. Furthermore, those who read leftwing blogs and those who read rightwing blogs are ideologically far apart. Blog readers are more polarized than either non-blog-readers or consumers of various television news programs, and roughly as polarized as U.S. Senators. Blog readers also participate more in politics than non-blog readers. Readers of blogs of different ideological dispositions do not participate less than those who read only blogs of one ideological disposition. Instead, readers of both left- and rightwing blogs and readers of exclusively leftwing blogs participate at similar levels, and both participate more than readers of exclusively rightwing blogs. This may reflect social movement-building efforts by leftwing bloggers.”


“Incivility and Outrage in American Politics: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio and Cable News”
Political Communication, 2011

Findings: “We demonstrate that outrage discourse is extensive, takes many different forms (we examine 13 different types), and spans media formats. We also show that while outrage tactics are largely the same for liberal and conservative media, conservative media use significantly more outrage speech than liberal media…. Partisanship, as measured by the voting behavior of legislators, is up quite sharply in the past few decades. It strains credulity to believe that the new and expanded ideological media has had nothing to do with this trend.”


“Online Political Mobilization and Advocacy Groups: Beyond Clicktivism”
Policy & Internet Journal, 2010

Findings: Detractors of digital activism have often “failed to recognize the placement of email [with]in the suite of campaign tactics used by progressive advocacy groups.” Moreover, “the broader indictment of ‘email campaigns’ finds limited empirical support from an analysis of the membership communications originating from prominent progressive advocacy groups in America.”


“Weapon of the Strong? Participatory Inequality and the Internet”
Perspectives in Politics, 2010

Findings: “Though much media attention has focused on the ability of campaigns to raise small donations on the Internet, the proportion of participation rates was roughly the same on- and offline: 38% of online donations were $50 or less, while the percentage was 39% offline; for donations of $51 to $100, the percentages were 28% and 29% respectively. Indeed, the digital divide appears to extend into the political realm, with “a strong positive relationship between [socioeconomic status] and — with the possible exception of political social networking — every measure of Internet-based political engagement we reviewed.”


“Liberation Versus Control: The Future of Cyberspace”
Journal of Democracy, 2010

Findings: “Cyberspace is a domain of intense competition, one that creates an ever changing matrix of opportunities and constraints for social forces and ideas. These social forces and ideas, in turn, are imbued with alternative rationalities that collide with one another and affect the structure of the communications environment. Unless the characteristics of cyberspace change radically in the near future and global culture becomes monolithic, linking technological properties to a single social outcome such as liberation or control is a highly dubious exercise.”


“Cross-ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers”
Public Choice, 2008

Findings: “We find that widely read political bloggers are much more likely to link to others who share their political views. However, we find no increase in this pattern over time. We also analyze the content of the links and find that while many of the links are based on straw-man arguments, bloggers across the political spectrum also address each others’ writing substantively, both in agreement and disagreement.”


“A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication”
Journal of Communication, 2008

Findings: “We anticipate that the fragmentation of the national audience reduces the likelihood of attitude change in response to particular patterns of news. The persuasion and framing paradigms require some observable level of attitude change in response to a media stimulus. As media audiences devolve into smaller, like-minded subsets of the electorate, it becomes less likely that media messages will do anything other than reinforce prior predispositions…. Findings suggesting that audiences have been persuaded by a message will be suspect because discrete media audiences will tend to self-select for preference congruence.”

Keywords: news, Twitter, Facebook, social media, research roundup

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