Media Choices, Niche Behavior, and Biases in Online Information

Tuesday, December 7, 2021
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

Sandra González-Bailón seminar flyer

Join us  Tuesday, December 7th from 12 PM - 1 PM PST for “Media Choices, Niche Behavior, and Biases in Online Information” featuring Sandra González-Bailón, Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania. This seminar series is organized by the Cyber Policy Center’s Program on Democracy and the Internet and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Cyber Initiative.  

The quality of our democracies relies on the quality of the information that citizens consume but we still know very little about how citizens engage with the news “in the wild”. In this talk, I will discuss two papers that examine that question in different settings. The first paper analyzes the media choices of a representative panel of the U.S. population (N ~ 55,000) as they consume TV, web, and YouTube content over a period of 44 months. Less than 10% of the panelists (N ~ 5,300) view and browse news on the three platforms. This small group of news hyper-consumers is formed predominantly by older male users with higher education. We find no evidence of substitution effects in the time these users spend consuming news on each of the three platforms, but consuming news across the media landscape is a choice that only a small and unrepresentative slice of the population makes. These results help us characterize the digital equivalent of the ‘opinion leaders’ first proposed to understand the effects of mass media. The hyper-consumers we identify in our analyses create the elite of opinion leaders that have a disproportionate influence in how news content is selected, circulated, and (ultimately) algorithmically amplified. That this small group is far from representing the population at large is one of the ways in which online information may perpetuate important biases in the salience of some topics over others. The second paper analyzes news sharing in social media during one of the largest protest mobilizations in U.S. history to examine ideological asymmetries in the posting of news content. We extract the list of URLs shared during the mobilization period and we characterize those web sites in terms of their audience reach and the ideological composition of that audience. We also analyze the reliability of the sites in terms of the credibility and transparency of the information they publish. We show that there is no evidence of unreliable sources having any prominent visibility during the protest period, but we do identify asymmetries in the ideological slant of the sources shared, with a clear bias towards right-leaning domains. Our results suggest that online networks are contested spaces where the activism of progressive movements coexists with the narratives of mainstream media, which gain visibility under the same stream of information but whose reporting is not necessarily aligned with the activists’ goals.

About the speaker:

Sandra González-Bailón is an Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, and affiliated faculty at the Warren Center for Network and Data Sciences. Her research lies at the intersection of network science, computational tools, and political communication. She is the author of Decoding the Social World (MIT Press, 2017) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Networked Communication (OUP, 2020). More information on her research can be found at
Her articles have appeared in journals like PNAS, Nature, Science, Political Communication, The Journal of Communication, and Social Networks, among others. She is the author of the book Decoding the Social World (MIT Press, 2017) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Networked Communication (OUP, 2020). She serves as Associate Editor for the journals Social Networks, EPJ Data Science, and The International Journal of Press/Politics, and she is a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors for Science. She leads the research group DiMeNet (/daɪmnet/) — acronym for Digital Media, Networks, and Political Communication.