Rethinking Our News Diet: On Polarisation and Online News Consumption

When talking about polarization, populism, and misinformed publics, we often focus on the role of echo chambers, fake news, and radical rabbit holes on social media. A new project argues this is the wrong focus. Instead, we should turn our eye on our news diet and ­– specifically – on the alarming lack of quality news in this diet. This lack is a risk to democratic societies because less informed citizens are more susceptible to populist and manipulative messages. Join the presentation of this project and a discussion on how to increase our news exposure.

Many observers worry about polarization, misinformation, populism, and declining support for democratic norms. Researchers often focus on echo chambers and fake or untrustworthy sources as important routes to these problems. Social media and their recommender systems are often accused of bringing radical and conspiratorial content to users and putting them in rabbit holes of radicalization.

A few years ago, communication researcher Magdalena Wojcieszak launched the ERC funded project EXPO to explore if exposing people to different political views could tackle polarization. What happens for example when a democrat reads Fox News? Or when somebody from the political right sees a news cast from a leftist organization? Does this make citizens more understanding of different viewpoints?

But after analysing online behavioral data of over 7,000 individuals from 3 countries (the US, Poland, and the Netherlands) over a period of 9 months, Wojcieszak found that many people do not watch or consume news at all. In fact, news comprised only 3.4% of what those large samples did and saw online during all this time. We should thus not worry so much about echo chambers, but about the very low consumption of quality news.

During this event Wojcieszak will share the main results of EXPO and discuss with journalists how we can encourage people to consume more quality news online for more resilient societies. Nudging the algorithm could be a promising route…

About the speakers

Magdalena Wojcieszak is Professor of Communication at the University of California, Davis, and an Associate Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, where she directs the ERC EXPO Grant. Her research focuses on how people select political information online and the effects of these selections on democracy. Prof. Wojcieszak has (co-)authored ~80 articles and received several awards for her teaching and research. She is part of the Misinformation Committee at the Social Science One, a partnership between academics and social media platforms, and of an independent partnership between academics and Facebook to study the impact of Facebook and Instagram on the U.S. 2020 elections.

Nicholas Diakopoulos is an Associate Professor in Communication Studies and Computer Science (by courtesy) at Northwestern University where he is Director of the Computational Journalism Lab (CJL) and Director of Graduate Studies for the Technology and Social Behavior (TSB) PhD program. His research is broadly oriented around topics related to Computational Journalism with active research projects on AI, automation, and algorithms in news production and distribution. He also pursues research in the area of AI, Ethics, & Society with projects related to algorithmic accountability, transparency, and impact.

Harm Ede Botje co-authored My Opinions Are Facts: The Making of Thierry Baudet together with Mischa Cohen. He writes profiles, reconstructions, and interviews for Follow The Money. Botje began his career in 1991 as an editor for the VPRO radio program Argos. He produced a significant number of foreign reports for the broadcaster and hosted Bureau Buitenland between 2010 and 2013. He worked as a reporter for Radio1-journaal in the late 1990s, wrote interviews and reports for Het Parool, and spent twenty years as an editor for Vrij Nederland. From 2020 to 2022, Botje was involved in establishing an investigative editorial team for NU.nl. He was nominated for a Tegel Award twice and won the European Journalism Award.

Alyt Damstra is a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy in The Hague (WRR), where she studies media and democracy in the digitalized age. She holds a PhD in political communication and has published extensively about the tripartite relationship between media coverage, public opinion, and political processes. In addition, Alyt is involved in the international research project Knowledge Resistance (https://knowledge-resistance.com/), which looks into the politicization of knowledge and the role that (social) media use plays in this process.

Mark Lievisse Adriaanse (moderator) is a reporter at NRC Handelsblad, where he mostly writes about democracy and the relationship between citizens and their governments. From September – January 2023 he was a journalist-in-residence at the NIAS institute, where he worked on a book about the crisis of contemporary liberal democracies. In 2021, he won, together with Derk Stokmans, the Dutch journalistic awards De Tegel and De Loep for an investigative piece into the first six months of the covid pandemic.

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