Are people becoming more likely to associate with like-minded friends in real life as well as in an online echo chamber?

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2 January
11:35
7 January
12:31

First things first: the idea that social media users are prone to becoming part of an echo chamber seems to be correct. A study by Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein from June of 2016 confirms the existence of self-reinforcing online political bubbles. In their words:

'The explanation [for the existence of echo chambers] involves users’ tendency to promote their favored narratives and hence to form polarized groups. Confirmation bias helps to account for users’ decisions about whether to spread content, thus creating informational cascades within identifiable communities. At the same time, aggregation of favored information within those communities reinforces selective exposure and group polarization.'

So it seems to be the case that our personal social networks are becoming ideologically homogeneous. But what does this mean for our social interactions offline? Are we now, more than ever, likely to only associate with people we agree with politically and/or ideologically?

It is true that many societies, particularly Western democracies, are becoming more politically polarised. This development has been well-documented in for example the US, but also across Europe; the political centre is on the wane, and in many European countries, although not all, outer spectrum parties win more and more seats in national and European parliaments. It's of course possible that we'll see a reversal of these trends in the near future, but on the whole it seems that national politics increasingly plays out along divergent ideological lines.

I couldn't find any data for Europe, but in the US it appears that political and social media polarisation are accompanied by societal fragmentation as well. This Pew Research study from 2014 claims that people in 'deep Red' or 'deep Blue' America feel like they're living in different worlds because liberals and conservatives find different types of communities to live in. From the study: 

'Their differences are striking: liberals would rather live in cities, while conservatives prefer rural areas and small towns; liberals are more likely to say racial and ethnic diversity is important in a community; conservatives emphasize shared religious faith. And while 73% of consistent liberals say it’s important to them to live near art museums and theaters, just 23% of consistent conservatives agree.'

This research seems to be in agreement with the idea that people are becoming more polarised online as well as offline. However, important though these developments may be, I am sceptical of the idea of continuous societal fragmentation. Firstly, we should be aware of the distinction between 'being friends with' and 'associating with'. The idea that people are more likely to become friends with people they agree with ideologically is both intuitive and well-documented in the scientific literature. But this has always been the case; political polarisation does not necessarily mean that the chances of someone becoming friends with (or perhaps even marrying) someone with an opposing ideology decrease. They may stay more or less the same because it was never all that likely to begin with.

When it comes to associating (or being in contact) with people with different ideological or political views, I see demographic trends as the main driver behind ideological segregation. If liberals and conservatives live in different locations, they won't see or talk to each other very often. The Pew research study mentioned above does say that liberals and conservatives in the US have vastly different preferences as to where they would like to live, and the United States are notoriously divided into Red and Blue states, a tell-tale sign of political segregation through geography. But in more mixed communities, which will continue to exist in the US as well as in Europe, associating with people we disagree with politically isn't exactly a problem. A 2016 study from Pew confirms this when it states that:

'Despite widespread partisan stereotypes, most Democrats and Republicans stop short of saying that it would be more difficult to get along with a new community member who belonged to the other party.'

In European countries, where political systems are usually more pluralistic than in the US, it's often next to impossible to live in an ideologically homogeneous community (although these do exist, as witnessed by for example the Dutch Bible Belt). And existing demographic trends like urbanisation, which is drawing people of all stripes to industrialised urban hubs in search of economic opportunities, counteract trends that may point towards the emergence of increasingly homogeneous ideological population pockets.

This ties in to the final point I'd like to make about this topic. Most discussions about political polarisation (online as well as offline), including this one, more or less assume that political preferences are so important to the average human being that it determines a huge amount of micro-economic decisions, such as where to live, what sports team to join, what school to send your kids to, and so on. In the interest of nuance I think it's important to ask whether the average person actually wants to discuss politics on a daily basis instead of, say, sports, the weather, work, gossip or relationships. I would argue that politics doesn't dominate our conversations, on a societal level, as much as we sometimes like to think. Yes, we may become increasingly tied up in online ideological bubbles, and demographic trends may indicate a trend (in some countries) towards increasingly segregated communities, but we shouldn't forget that it's still perfectly normal for two people who support the same football team but vote for different political parties to be acquaintances or even friends. Politics plays a part in our decision-making processes, for sure, but as far as I can tell it goes too far to assume that it's becoming difficult for two people whose most pronounced difference is their political affiliation to sit down, crack open a beer, and talk about Game of Thrones.

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