Young people who get their information solely from the news feeds on social media have a comparatively high risk of falling prey to so-called filter bubbles or echo chambers. As an indicator of this risk, psychologists at Ulm University have surveyed the number of online and offline news sources consumed. Among other things, they were able to show that non-voters, AfD voters and supporters of other small parties consume the least variety of news sources – and could thus be stuck in a bubble. The study, in which the researchers also investigated the connection between demographic characteristics, personality, authoritarian attitudes and the number of news channels consumed, was recently published in the journal Heliyon.
The information presented to users in Google search queries and social media news feeds is pre-selected for them by algorithms. This content is specifically tailored to their presumed interests and thus carries the danger of so-called 'filter bubbles'. The problem: Individuals do not know what data are collected about them, so they cannot influence the message selection and often consider the presented information to be unfiltered. Especially when it comes to current news, politics and science discuss such bubbles as potential 'threat to democracy'. Another consequence of personalisation on the Internet are 'echo chambers', which exclusively and repeatedly present content that matches and reinforces the opinion of the user. Social media platforms such as Facebook, where people who think alike network, are the perfect breeding ground for this to happen. One way for users to avoid filter bubbles and echo chambers is to actively obtain information from a broader range of sources. The number of news sources someone consumes and the categories of these channels (news feed, online news site, print media, TV, etc.) may therefore indicate their risk of falling into such a bubble or echo chamber. Researchers led by Dr. Cornelia Sindermann and Professor Christian Montag from Ulm University have investigated the extent to which demographic characteristics such as age and gender, as well as personality and attitudes influence the choice of information sources.
More than 1600 respondents interviewed online
The psychologists evaluated data from 1681 test persons which they collected via an online platform. Study participants were asked whether they consume news on the Internet, on TV or radio, in print products or via the news feeds of social media. They were prompted to indicate how many sources from the specified categories they had used in the past six months. Based on these data, the researchers were able to establish the absolute number of different news sources consumed and subsequently divided the participants into three groups: The first group is comprised of people who inform themselves solely via the news feeds on social media while the test persons in the second group use other online media in addition to news feeds. The third group consume news exclusively offline, i.e. via print media, TV and/or radio. Test persons who inform themselves both online and offline were not included in the statistical analyses as this group seems to inform themselves about daily events in a balanced way. In order to assess the study participant's personalities and attitudes, the questionnaire also surveyed the characteristics of the Big Five (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) as well as the extent of authoritarianism (Right-Wing Authoritarianism/RWA). In a final step, the participants were asked which party they would vote for if there were federal elections for the German Bundestag on Sunday (options: CDU/CSU (centre-right), SPD (centre-left), Greens, FDP (centre to centre-right), Die Linke (left-wing), AfD (right-wing), other parties, and 'I would not vote').
Older study participants use more information channels
The evaluation showed that older study participants generally consume a greater variety of news sources than younger ones. It also indicated that men consume a higher number of information channels than women. In terms of personality, people who use several different news sources appear to be more open and less authoritarian in comparison. Not surprisingly, the 'news feed group', which obtains information exclusively from social media, has the lowest average age at 24.26 years. In contrast, the highest average age (36.39 years) is found among participants who only obtain information offline (newspaper, TV or radio). Moreover, this 'offline group' shows the highest values in conscientiousness and the lowest in neuroticism. 'The news feed group has the greatest risk of being trapped in a filter bubble or echo chamber: Members use only one type of news source which, on top of that, quite likely provides highly selected information. Then there is the user's own selection as is typical for social media, which can exacerbate the pre-selection by algorithms', explains Cornelia Sindermann. However, less than 5 percent of the respondents can be categorised in the exclusive 'news feed group'.
But how do these results relate to election preferences? In the study, persons who said they would vote for the AfD, one of the 'other parties' or not at all, indicated the lowest variety of consumed news sources. Compared to other test persons, AfD voters also show the highest levels of authoritarian attitudes.
The psychologists conclude that demographic variables, personality traits and individual attitudes are related to the range of news sources consumed. Nevertheless, the researchers see the great danger of actually ending up in filter bubbles or echo chambers only in a relatively small group (<5 percent). The authors point out that further studies combining methods from psychology and computer science (psychoinformatics) should be conducted on this matter. For instance, the contents of the messages consumed could be analysed and their connection with voting preferences investigated. Ulm University supported Christian Montag in his current scientific work with a DFG Heisenberg professorship.
In a new project, the psychologists at Ulm University want to investigate whether the recognition of 'fake news' as opposed to 'true news' is also related to news consumption. Data collection has already started. Those interested can participate at www.fake-news-test.de
Cornelia Sindermann, Jon D. Elhaib, Morten Moshagen, & Christian Montag: Age, gender, personality, ideological attitudes and individual differences in a person’s news spectrum: How many and who might be prone to “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” online? Heliyon. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e03214
Media contact: Annika Bingmann