Homophily and Online Politics

Homophily and Online Politics

Kevin Wallsten (California State University – Long Beach, USA) and Dilyana Toteva (California State University – Long Beach, USA)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8239-9.ch078


The expansion of the Internet and the sudden popularity of Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, raise important questions about the extent and consequences of homophilous sorting in online political discussions. In particular, there is growing concern that Internet users' ability to filter out alternative points of view will lead political discourse to become more polarized and fragmented along ideological lines. The decline of deliberative democracy and the breakdown of America's system of representative government, the story goes, will be the inevitable causalities of political discussions moving from in-person to online. Unfortunately, the empirical research in fields such as mass communication, political science, and sociology provides no hard and fast conclusions about the amount of online homophily in political discussions. This article details this conflicted body of research and points to some areas where future research may provide more insight into the intersection of online politics and homophilous sorting.
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Homophily is “the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people” (McPherson, Smith-Lovin & Cook 2001, 416). Studies of homophily have a long and distinguished tradition in anthropology, sociology, political science and mass communications. While numerous studies on social networks were published in the 1920s, 1930’s and 1940’s (e.g., Almack 1922, Richardson 1940, Bott 1929, Loomis 1946), the classic citation in the homophily literature is Lazarsfeld and Merton's (1954) analysis of friendship patterns in two small New Jersey towns. In this study, Lazarsfeld and Merton distinguish between status homophily, in which “similarity is based on informal, formal, or ascribed status,” and value homophily, which is based on “values, attitudes, ands beliefs.” Subsequent empirical research into homophilous sorting – the propensity of individuals who are similar on some meaningful dimension to form clusters with each other – has employed this basic distinction as a guide.

Research over the last fifty years has shown that both status and value homophily are driven by many factors. One particularly important factor in the early literature on homophily was geography and physical proximity. As McPherson et al. (2001) write, “it takes more energy to connect to those far away than those who are readily available” (429). Based on this line of work, one might expect that technological innovations that “loosen the bounds of geography by lowering the effort involved in contact” (Kauffer & Carley, 1993) will dramatically minimize both status and value homophily. In particular, the Internet, with its ability to allow asynchronous and spatially unconstrained communication between previously isolated individuals, should diversify the composition of social networks and encourage cross-ideological political discussions.

It is easy to imagine, however, that the Internet will exert a much different kind of impact on homophily. Specifically, in the political realm, the Internet may promote high levels of homophilous sorting along ideological lines. As Farrell (2012) points out, there are a variety of ways in which the Internet makes it more likely that individuals with shared political views will cluster together. According to Farrell, the Internet encourages homophily by making it exceedingly easy for individuals to express their opinions and begin directly interacting with others who share those views. But, as Farrell points out, homophily may also occur more indirectly. Individuals may, for example, spontaneously converge around a common source of online political information that is attractive given their shared interests and cluster together only as a secondary consequence of this shared interest. Thus, while technological change is often perceived as facilitating diverse political interactions, “new technologies may have [just] allowed people greater latitude to create ties that are homophilous” (Hampton & Wellman, 2000).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Democratic Deliberation: Long and thoughtful discussions of political issues occurring in the context of a democratic political system.

Blogs: Frequently updated online journals that have minimal or no external editing.

Selective Exposure: A tendency for individuals to seek out information that reinforces their pre-existing views while avoiding information that contradicts their pre-existing views.

Ideological Polarization: Divergence of political attitudes in the mass public to the ideological extremes.

Homophily: The idea that contact between people who share something in common occurs at a higher rate than contact between people who do not share something in common.

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