(Almost) Everything in Moderation: New Evidence on Americans’ Online Media Diets

Title(Almost) Everything in Moderation: New Evidence on Americans’ Online Media Diets
Publication TypeUnpublished
AuthorsGuess A
Does the internet enable selective exposure to politically congenial content? I answer this
question by combining large-N passive metering data with individual-level political variables on
a representative cross-section of Americans. First, I introduce and validate behavioral data on
individuals’ online media consumption in both 2015 and 2016. I then construct a simple measure
of media slant and apply machine learning to identify individual articles related to news about
politics. I find that most people across the political spectrum have relatively moderate media
diets driven to a large degree by mainstream portals. Quantifying the similarity of Democrats’
and Republicans’ media diets, I find nearly 70% overlap in the two groups’ distributions in early
2015 and roughly 50% in the last weeks of the 2016 election campaign. These patterns hold
for web consumption on mobile devices as well as on desktops and laptops. An exception to this
picture is a small group of partisans who drive a disproportionate amount of traffic to ideologically
slanted websites. Perhaps since this group already exhibits fairly homogenous media consumption
patterns, I find no evidence of increasing media diet polarization over time among those for whom
I have data in both years. Theoretically, I outline a distinction between “active” and “passive”
information consumption and argue that those most likely to seek out political news may have
a taste for partisan content. Overall, the findings support a view that if online “echo chambers”
exist, they are a reality for relatively few people who drive the traffic and priorities of the most
partisan outlets.