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Saturday, September 9 • 4:05pm - 4:38pm
Social Shaping of the Politics of Internet Search and Net-working: Moving Beyond Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News

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Global debate over the impact that algorithms and search can have on shaping political opinions has been increasing in the aftermath of 2016 election results in Europe and the US. Powerful images of the Internet enabling access to a global treasure trove of information have shifted to worries over the degree to which those who use social media, and online tools such as search engines, are being fed inaccurate, fake, or politically-targeted information that distorts public opinion and political change. There are serious questions over whether biases embedded in the algorithms that drive search engines and social media will have major political consequences, such as creating filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, are search engines and social media providing people with information that aligns with their beliefs and opinions or challenging them to consider countervailing perspectives? Most generally, the predominant concern is whether or not these media have a major impact on the political opinions and viewpoints of the public, and if so, for the better or worse.

This study addresses these issues by asking Internet users how they use search, social media, and other important media, for political information, and what difference it makes for them. We conducted an online survey of stratified random samples of Internet users in seven nations, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the US.

The descriptive and multivariate findings cast doubt on deterministic perspectives on search. We find that technology matters – search indeed plays a major role in shaping opinion – but it is not deterministic. For example, the thesis of a filter bubble is overstated, as our pattern of findings counter this expectation. For instance, search engines are among an array of media consulted by those interested in politics. Another more sociotechnical deterministic narrative is around the concept of echo chambers, where users enabled by increased media choice and social media tend to surround themselves with the viewpoints of likeminded people. Our evidence contradicts this view as well. Most of those who search for political information expose themselves to a variety of viewpoints.

Results also demonstrate that research has tended to underestimate the social shaping of technology. National cultures and media systems play an unrecognized role, as well as individual differences in political and Internet orientations. This study shows how overestimating technical determinants while underestimating social influences has led to disproportionate levels of concern over the bias of search.

The findings suggest that misinformation can fool some search engine users some of the time, suggesting that a sizeable group of users could benefit from more support and training in the use of search engines. Also, the findings should caution governments, business, and industry from over-reacting to panic over the potential bias of search in shaping political information and opinion.

avatar for William Dutton

William Dutton

Quello Professor, University of Oxford
My colleagues and I recently completed a study of search and politics, and I continue to work on my concept of The Fifth Estate. Happy to speak with anyone about any aspect of Internet studies, that very much includes study of social media and society.


Saturday September 9, 2017 4:05pm - 4:38pm EDT
ASLS Hazel Hall - Room 329