Opinion Diversity in Online Political Discussion Networks

Do online political discussions tend to aggregate diverse voices in cross-cutting debate and deliberation. Or do ?audiences? for online discussion tend to fragment into ideological echo chambers? In the wilds of threaded discussion on the internet (as opposed to deliberative polls, moderated discussions, and other designed venues of deliberation), networks of political discourse emerge from billions of individual choices by millions of individual citizens about what to discuss online, where to discuss it, and with whom. The tendency toward homophily in social networks is well established, but we should not assume it necessarily operates in online discussion environments. Some online discussants seek reinforcement, but others go online to encounter differing points of view. Individual motivations vary, and therefore so do individual behaviors, and ultimately the structures of discussion networks that emerge from them. We analyze discussion networks operating in a selection of USENET newsgroups about politics, half ?issue? based (like alt.politics.abortion) and half ?ideology? based (like alt.politics.democrat). Content analysis is used to identify the ideological and policy positions of core discussants, and social network analysis reveals the structure of relationships among them. Unlike the ?blogosphere,? which link analysis has shown tends toward ideological fragmentation, USENET political newsgroups feature a remarkable balance of viewpoints. This is especially true of newsgroups one might na?vely expect to draw partisan participants, such as alt.fan.noam-chomsky and alt.politics.republican. Greater imbalances are found in key issue-oriented newsgroups, such as talk.politics.abortion and alt.politics.mideast, where the nature of participants? commitment to the topics of discussion is different?mirroring distinctions between ?issue publics? and the ?attentive public.? Political discussion on USENET is often criticized as uncivil and extremist. While it is true that a strict Habermasian might find little that looks like good rational-critical discourse, there is in fact much that J. S. Mill might admire.

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