Popping the ideological bubbles of social media users

Focus on the Social Sciences

By Morgan Tucker

When Facebook and Twitter gained popularity in the late 2000s, many believed their growth would have an impact in the political world — enhancing communication among communities, their representatives and the government.

Andy Guess became fascinated with the intersection of American politics and social media. For the past four years, his research has focused on how the internet and digital media shape attitudes and political behaviors.

“I work to reconstruct people’s online information environments as best as possible. This involves trying to get a sense of what people actually see on social media platforms and what people do when they are browsing the internet,” said Guess, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He combines individual survey responses with online behavioral data to observe web-browsing behaviors, from how much time people spend on certain websites to who clicks on what stories.

One of the issues he has explored is how people receive and share information from preferred environments, whether Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms or websites like The New York Times. Using surveys and behavioral data, Guess’s recent work shows that people actually obtain their political news from numerous sources, not just partisan outlets.

“There’s a common narrative that people on the right only read right-wing news and people on the left only read left-wing news,” said Alexander Coppock, assistant professor of political science at Yale University. “Using his research design, Andy showed that’s really not true. Most people are in the middle, and most people are getting a balanced news diet.”

Guess’s research also investigates “fake news” and how online misinformation can affect people’s beliefs, decisions and voting patterns. He hopes that his work will give people the tools they need to inform themselves about questionable content online.

“Before Andy came along, we were analyzing survey responses and self-reported information about social media, or we were just analyzing social media on its own,” Coppock said. “He was able to put those two together in a really important way and bring a new technological innovation to the table. His innovative research designs really set him apart in this area.”

Conducting his research in this way allows Guess “to understand the type of people consuming media and what individual-level factors predict the kind of media people choose,” said Kevin Munger, assistant professor of political science at Penn State University.

Adapting to the rapid change of digital media, Guess and his collaborators are now looking at technology such as video streaming and its future impact on election cycles. He is also collaborating with researchers in the study of digital literacy to help people better evaluate the news and information they see.