Civics: Five myths about misinformation – Assertions about “filter bubbles” are often overstated.

Brendan Nyhan:

Misinformation presents a challenge to the American political system. Unsupported claims can distort debate, deceive voters and encourage contempt for the other party. In the final days of the presidential race, for instance, hundreds of thousands of people in key states received mysterious text messages with falsehoods about Democratic nominee Joe Biden (including that he wants to give “sex changes to second-graders”). But how much of the news that average Americans consume is misinformation, and what impact does it have? Many news sources ironically misinform readers about its prevalence and influence. These five myths are particularly persistent.

Most Americans dwell in online echo chambers.

In his farewell address, President Barack Obama warned against the tendency “to retreat into our own bubbles … especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.” Under the headline “Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy,” software executive Mostafa M. El-Bermawy wrote in Wired that “the global village that was once the internet was has been replaced by digital islands of isolation that are drifting further apart each day.”

In reality, the average person’s sources of online information are relatively balanced and diverse. People’s habits do incline somewhat toward their preferred political positions, but a study of Web browser, survey and consumer data from 2004 to 2009 found that people’s media diets online were modestly divided by ideology but far more diverse than, for instance, the networks of people with whom they talked about politics in person. This finding of limited information polarization has been repeatedly replicated. Most recently, a new study found that mobile news consumption is even less segregated by ideology than desktop/laptop data used in previous research.  

 The bubble theory overgeneralizes from a small subset of extremely online people who have skewed information diets and consume a tremendous amount of news. One study finds, for example, that approximately 25 percent of all online political news traffic from Republicans comes from the 8 percent of people with the most conservative news diets.