Political Ideology vs. Algorithms in News Content

According to a study co-authored by Rutgers faculty, political ideology and user choice rather than algorithmic curation are the biggest drivers of engagement with partisan and unreliable news provided by Google Search. The study results are published in the journal Nature.

The study addressed the concern that digital algorithms learn from user preferences and surface information that largely agrees with users’ attitudes and biases. According to the researchers, search results shown to Democrats differ little in ideology from those offered to Republicans. Ideological differences emerge when people decide which search results to click on or which websites to visit.

The same is true about the proportion of low-quality content. The quantity doesn’t differ considerably among partisans, though older participants who identify as ‘strong Republicans’ are more likely to engage with it.

Katherine Ognyanova at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and co-author of the study, said Google’s algorithms sometimes generate polarizing and potentially dangerous results. She indicated that what they found suggests that Google is surfacing the content evenly among users with different political views. The extent to which people are engaging with the websites is mainly based on personal political outlook.

Tracking website visits requires access to people’s computers, and researchers generally rely on more theoretical approaches to speculate how algorithms affect polarization or push people into “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” of political extremes.

Researchers at Rutgers, Stanford, and Northeastern universities conducted a two-wave study; pairing survey results with empirical data collected from a custom-built browser extension to measure exposure and engagement to online content during the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections. They recruited 1,021 participants to install the browser extension for Chrome and Firefox voluntarily, and the software recorded the URLs of Google Search results and Google and browser histories, giving researchers precise information on the content users were engaging with and for how long. Participants also completed a survey and self-reported their political identification.

Results showed that a participant’s political identification did little to influence the amount of partisan and unreliable news they were exposed to on Google Search. Still, there was a clear relationship between political identification and engagement with polarizing content.

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