Social media and the internet are not influential in fragmenting society, new research from Oxford University suggests.
The study claims that despite concerns over social media “echo chambers”, where users only interact with those of a similar point of view, most people still use multiple platforms and media outlets – avoiding such spaces as a result.
According to the research, UK internet users turn to an average of four different media sources and have accounts on three different social media platforms – a broad enough range to reduce the effect of echo chambers, the study claims.
Dr Grant Blank, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the study, said: “Whatever the causes of political polarisation today, it is not social media or the internet.
“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.
“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.”
Co-author of the study Dr Elizabeth Dubois, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, said only a small section of the population could be considered to be at risk of sitting in online echo chambers.
“Our results show that most people are not in a political echo chamber. The people at risk are those who depend on only a single medium for political news and who are not politically interested: about 8% of the population,” she said.
“However, because of their lack of political engagement, their opinions are less formative and their influence on others is likely to be comparatively small.”
Previous studies have expressed concerns that the algorithms used on social media sites such as Facebook, which serve users content based on previous behaviour, can fuel the creation of echo chambers.
But last month, Facebook announced plans to change the structure of its news feed to prioritise content from family and friends rather than publishers in an attempt to create more “meaningful” interactions between users.