Social Media Echo Chambers and Satisfaction with Democracy among Democrats and Republicans in the Aftermath of the 2016 U.S. ElectionsBy Laura Sudulich on 31 January 2018
By Florian Justwan (University of Idaho), Bert Baumgaertner (University of Idaho), Juliet E. Carlisle (University of Idaho), April K. Clark (Northern Illinois University), and Michael Clark (Northern Illinois University)
This is a summary of an original article published in JEPOP. The full article is available here
In our article, we examine the effects of social media echo chambers on democratic satisfaction in the United States. “Democratic satisfaction” (our dependent variable) refers to citizen-perceptions about how a country’s political system works in practice. Social media echo chambers (our main independent variable) are ideologically congruent and homogenous settings in which individuals primarily converse with co-partisans. In these types of online environments (commonly found on Facebook and Twitter), political views are not debated and challenged but repeated, reinforced, and amplified. As some recent studies show, a substantial proportion of political discussions on social media now occurs in echo chambers.
We develop three different hypotheses. Based on existing research in political science, we expect that self-identified Republicans should be more satisfied with the state of democracy in the United States than Democrats or Independents (Hypothesis 1). This expectation follows existing research which suggests that supporters of electorally successful parties evaluate their country’s political system more positively than supporters of “losing” parties. Next we hypothesize that social media echo chambers should amplify this “winner/loser gap.” More specifically, we expect echo chambers to raise democratic satisfaction among Republicans (Hypothesis 2) and to drive down system support among Democrats (Hypothesis 3). These expectations are based on the idea that conversations in homogenous online networks reduce attitudinal ambivalence and thereby increase the degree to which Democrats/Republicans feel emotionally attached to their respective parties. These psychological links should then generate “satisfaction boosts” for supporters of successful political parties and “satisfaction decreases” for supporters of losing parties.
Our empirical analysis relies on original data from a nationally representative online survey in January 2017. Our investigation produces four main findings. First, self-identified Republicans are more satisfied with the state of democracy in the United States than Democrats or Independents. Second, we find that social media echo chambers “boost” democratic satisfaction among self-identified Republicans. In other words, GOP supporters in echo chambers express higher levels of system support than Republicans outside of echo chambers. Third, social media echo chambers do not seem to influence democratic attitudes of Democrats or political Independents. Fourth, all Republicans are consistently more satisfied with democracy than Democrats. In other words, while echo chambers do increase the “satisfaction gap” between supporters of both parties, even GOP voters outside of echo chambers feel more positively about their country’s political system than Democrats (put differently: there is a “winner effect” even outside of echo chambers).
The implications of our findings are important. Others have suggested that social media networks contribute to ideological polarization among voters in the United States. We demonstrate that echo chambers on web 2.0 sites also divide citizens on the basis of how they feel about the state of democracy in their country.