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Social media produces a more diverse news diet — wait, what?!

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New research has challenged the very existence of online filter bubbles.

The study found that people who use search engines, social media, and aggregators to access news can actually have more diverse information diets.

Researchers from the universities of Oxford and Liverpool analyzed web tracking data on around 3,000 UK news users.

The team tracked every visit from a desktop or laptop to 21 of the most popular UK news websites over a one-month period. They also recorded the URL that preceded each visit to infer how the site was accessed.

They grouped these visits into three categories:

  1. Direct access, when someone clicked on an article from a news site’s homepage, or from another article on the same site
  2. Search access, when the previous URL was associated with a search page
  3. Facebook, Twitter, and Google News access, when the previous URL was associated with one of those platforms.

They then combined measures of diversity and media outlet slants to compare the variety of news in each category.

They found that people who used search engines, social media, and aggregators to access news received a more diverse mix of information. 

The results also showed older people have less diverse news repertoires than younger people, and that men have less diverse repertoires than women.

However, when people accessed more news directly, the prominence of more partisan outlets was lower.

Per the study paper:

Indeed, it may be that exposure to conflicting partisan views, rather than over-exposure to like-minded views, will offer a better explanation for the negative outcomes — like polarization — that are sometimes associated with distributed media use. Similarly, although consuming news from a variety of outlets may offer some benefits, some may simply be more comfortable with a world where most people only access news from impartial sources like the BBC — where differing views are often recognized, but presented in a certain way.

Researchers should be wary of extrapolating findings from one country to the rest of the world. But the study further challenges the existence of filter bubbles.

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