Study of Studies

Online and Offline: How Your Friends Affect Your Politics

In an ideal democracy, we would talk about politics all the time. Imagine your friends and co-workers chatting about the latest political controversies, openly disagreeing, but still civilly exchanging ideas and arguments. Rather than debate, with both sides trying to prove each other wrong, it would be a deliberative effort, in search of common ground. Someone might change their mind occasionally after weighing the evidence. Just to be clear, this does not mean the “Can you believe Donald Trump is still ahead in the polls?” kind of political talk, so much as “I believe in policy X because…” or “I support candidate Y because…” If you’re having trouble picturing this, it’s probably because this is not how political deliberation usually plays out, whether in person or online.  Political deliberation has been studied both face-to-face and over social media, and the results diverge unexpectedly.

Besides the common belief that politics is a taboo subject, research has shown that most of us are inclined to discuss politics with people with whom we agree. In fact, we self-select into social circles composed of people who already share our opinions, hindering our exposure to different (cross-cutting) views[1]. However, some scholars think that this is an exaggerated problem. The majority of people know at least one person in their social network with whom they talk politics that holds views different than their own. People in networks with disagreement generally hold less polarized viewpoints[2], and exposure to disagreement breeds political tolerance[3]. Unfortunately, disagreement also makes people less enthusiastic about politics, but the evidence is mixed on whether or not this actually affects participation, such as voting[4].

There’s some debate about whether political discussion has the same effects online, particularly on social media. Research shows that people are most likely to encounter cross-cutting viewpoints in online settings that aren’t centered around politics, but where politics keeps coming up anyway[5] (like Facebook). In fact, there is a correlation between social media use and exposure to differing viewpoints[6]. However, unlike conversations in person, disagreement on social media has been found to result in increased polarization[7] and increased political participation online, such as sharing political content[8]. It is unclear why this difference exists. Are we more biased about the information we see online? Is online communication simply too impersonal for political persuasion? There are many unanswered questions about the role of social media in politics, making it a promising subject area for future research.


[1] Mutz, Diana C. “Cross-cutting Social Networks: Testing Democratic Theory in Practice.” American Political Science Review 96.01 (2002): 111-126. Web.

[2] Huckfeldt, Robert, Jeanette Morehouse Mendez, and Tracy Osborn. “Disagreement, Ambivalence, and Engagement: The Political Consequences of Heterogeneous Networks.” Political Psychology 25.1 (2004): 65-95. Web.

[3] Mutz (2002)

[4] Huckfeldt et al., (2002)

[5] Wojcieszak, Magdalena E., and Diana C. Mutz. “Online Groups and Political Discourse: Do Online Discussion Spaces Facilitate Exposure to Political Disagreement?” Journal of Communication 59.1 (2009): 40-56. Web.

[6] Kim, Yonghwan. “The Contribution of Social Network Sites to Exposure to Political Difference: The Relationships among SNSs, Online Political Messaging, and Exposure to Cross-cutting Perspectives.” Computers in Human Behavior 27.2 (2011): 971-77. Web.

[7] Lee, Jae Kook, Jihyang Choi, Cheonsoo Kim, and Yonghwan Kim. “Social Media, Network Heterogeneity, and Opinion Polarization.” Journal of Communication 64.4 (2014): 702-22. Web.

[8] Kim, Yonghwan, and Hsuan-Ting Chen. “Social Media and Online Political Participation: The Mediating Role of Exposure to Cross-cutting and Like-minded Perspectives.” Telematics and Informatics 33.2 (2016): 320-30. Web.