Fresh research from Oxford University has suggested that social media and the internet are not the root of today's fragmented society, despite many believing otherwise.
The research studied how online 'echo chambers' - self-selecting groups of people who all, basically, agree with each other - may not be the threat they are perceived to be. It found that most people use multiple media outlets and social media platforms, meaning that only a small proportion of the population is actually influenced by any one of them.
"The argument against echo chambers is well documented: helped by social media algorithms, we are increasingly choosing to interact in 'safe spaces', with people who think and act like us - effectively preaching our opinions to the converted," said the study.
"As a result, this behaviour is distorting our world view and, in the process, our ability to compromise, which in turn, stimulates political polarisation."
Rather than encouraging the use and development of echo chambers, the breadth of multimedia available actually makes it easier for people to avoid them
The University added that while the internet is the home of social media, it is also a hub of other media choices, including online news websites and links to online newspapers and magazines, as well as offline media, such as TV and radio platforms.
As a result, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Ottawa examined people's media choices using a random sample of adult internet users in the UK.
They looked at how much they influenced their interaction with echo chambers, against six key variables: gender, income, ethnicity, age, breadth of media use and political interest. The findings revealed that rather than encouraging the use and development of echo chambers, the breadth of multimedia available actually makes it easier for people to avoid them.
'Whatever the causes of political polarisation today, it is not social media or the internet," said Dr Grant Blank, co-author and research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.
"If anything, most people use the internet to broaden their media horizons. We found evidence that people actively look to confirm the information that they read online, in a multitude of ways."
Blank explained that they mainly do this by using a search engine to find offline media and validate political information.
"In the process they often encounter opinions that differ from their own and as a result whether they stumbled across the content passively or use their own initiative to search for answers while double checking their ‘facts', some changed their own opinion on certain issues," he added.
Whatever the causes of political polarisation today, it is not social media or the internet
The research shows that respondents used an average of four different media sources, and had accounts on three different social media platforms. The more media outlets people used, the more they tended to avoid echo chambers.
However, when it comes to politics, the researchers found it did significantly influence the likelihood of people being in an echo chamber.
"Those with a keen political interest were most likely to be 'opinion leaders' who others turn to for political information," the report claimed.
"Compared with the less politically inclined, these people were found to be media junkies, who consumed political content wherever they could find it and, as a result of this diversity, they were less likely to be in an echo chamber."
The people most at risk are those who depend on only a single medium for political news and who are not politically interested, which is estimated at only about eight per cent of the population, the research suggested.
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