As much as we like to think of ourselves as adaptable, open-minded individuals, in my opinion, we are stubborn human beings who hate to get our values challenged. Offline (i.e. in the real world), our friends and networks are more likely to be homogeneous with like-minded individuals who have demographic characteristics and belief systems that are very similar to ours. Therefore, I am not at all surprised by the political polarization that is occurring in the US.
With the advent of the social media age, and the increased connectivity and digitization, are our online friends, networks, and discussions, then, similarly homophilic?
I had believed so until I read this paper by Pablo Barbera who asserts that “social media reduces mass political polarization” based on evidence he saw from Germany, Spain, and the U.S. Barbera suggests that our online world tends to be dominated by weak ties, or those individuals who you know but are not necessarily close to (probably the majority of your Facebook friend group!). These friends are likely to share, re-tweet, and post about a variety of opinions that you would not have heard otherwise. As a result, you are likely to see much more diversity of opinion, solicited and unsolicited, from these weaker ties than you are from your offline networks, generally dominated by friends and family, who hold similar views to yours. This shift is important because 41% of Americans are obtaining their news from social media sites, according to Barbera.
Sometimes, I have the urge to block posts from “friends” that are not inclined to agree with me on political matters. Now, I will take a step back and reflect on two things: (1) them sharing different opinions may challenge my beliefs, but’s that’s a good thing and (2) in turn, me sharing different opinions will hopefully impact them positively as well.