Monday, March 6, 2023

The use of social media only stirs up political anger in people who strongly embrace like-minded content, while even heavy users without such blinders become less angry

Birds of a Feather Get Angrier Together: Social Media News Use and Social Media Political Homophily as Antecedents of Political Anger. Zicheng Cheng, Hugo Marcos-Marne & Homero Gil de Zúñiga. Political Behavior, Mar 6 2023.

Abstract: A significant body of literature within political communication revolves around the constructive political virtues and blighting social and democratic consequences of political anger. For the most part, studies have focused on identifying the primary causes and antecedents of political anger. However, within the context of social media, fewer efforts have been devoted to clarifying how and what infuriates people about politics. Does social media news use relate to increased or reduced levels of political anger? Do social media political homophilic networks explain political anger? And to what extent does political homophily influence the potential effect of social media news use on citizens’ political anger levels—moderating effect? Results drawing on a two-wave U.S. survey dataset show that the frequency of social media news use alone has no direct effect on people’s increased political anger, whereas interacting in homophilic discussion and information networks on social media positively associates with anger. Furthermore, the relationship between social media news use and political anger is contingent upon social media political homophily. Those who report high levels of social media news use and very low levels of social media political homophily end up being less angry over time. Limitations and steps for future research are discussed in the manuscript.


Anger is an important political emotion that holds an ambivalent relationship with democracy. While it may serve the powerless to question the political order (Lyman, 2004) and trigger constructive politics before conflicts escalate (Tagar et al., 2011), political anger is also associated with biased assimilation, fueling ideological bias in the acceptance of political information that aligns with one’s opinion (Weeks, 2015). Anger also relates to reliance on pre-existing heuristics and stereotypes (Suhay & Erisen, 2018), increased incivility, hostility, and distrust (Hasell & Weeks, 2016), less willingness to compromise (Mackuen et al., 2010; Wollebæk et al., 2019), and even with violence (Claassen, 2016). Acknowledging the wide range of consequences associated with political anger, this study focused on its social media roots.

Our analysis shows the importance of considering social media political homophily to understand political anger in online environments. Higher levels of social media political homophily do not only associate with political anger, but they also moderate the oftentimes empirically elusive relationship between social media news use and political anger. While social media news use does not contribute to explaining political anger directly, individuals who rank low on social media political homophily will be less angry about politics the more they use social media to consume information about public affairs. More importantly, the direct and moderating effect of social media political homophily on political anger is consistent across all models tested in this study: cross-sectional, lagged, and autoregressive.

Plenty of research has considered whether social media use would produce more homogeneous (Adamic & Glance, 2005; Conover et al., 2011; Feller et al., 2011) or heterogeneous (Choi & Lee, 2015; Kim, 2011; Lee et al., 2014) online environments. Our findings suggest that these studies are of the highest importance to unravel the association between social media news use and political anger. Our findings also suggest that there is no unified answer to social media news. That is, it is not solely about whether people use social media for news or not, but rather other political and communicative predispositions making individuals connect more often with like-minded people and expose themselves to ideologically congruent news. Then, they will be more likely to ‘fall victim’ to the hyper-partisan news and discussion environments which are featured with blame-attribution, moralization, and identity politics framing (Barberá, 2020; Hameleers et al., 2018; Rydell et al., 2008), thus eliciting negative effects like anger. In other words, how people consume social media and curate their news feed exerts an influence on political anger.

Our results demonstrate that whether social media news use is associated with political anger is contingent upon how the specific informational and discussion affordances that social media also provide, more specifically, whether they actively and purposively curate homophilic or heterogeneous social media news and discussion networks. Cinelli et al. (2021) suggested that aggregation of homophilic users dominates the interaction dynamics on social media like Facebook and users tend to seek information that is consistent with his/her preexisting opinion and favor the interaction with like-minded peers, and this situation leads to the formation of polarized groups online. Alternatively, Dubois and Blank (2018) found that a diverse media diet, including news use on multiple media outlets, will direct social media news users toward more diverse information and perspectives, reducing the likelihood of getting into the echo chamber. Results by Guess (2021) are particularly important in this regard, as he demonstrates that most people, at least in the U.S., interact in relatively heterogeneous environments online. While our paper remains agnostic as to the extent to which online homophily is present, the main results provide support for the idea that social media political homophily, when present, matters not only in the context of creating political segregation (Conover et al., 2011), spreading misinformation (Del Vicario et al., 2016), or strengthening group identity (Yardi & boyd, 2010), but also in explaining political anger.

This study adds some nuance to the understanding of social media news users by connecting social media political homophily, social media news use, and political anger. Prior research has suggested that affective polarization is on the rise in the U.S. and that some predicting factors, such as selective exposure (Levendusky, 2013; Tsfati & Nir, 2017) and negative political news coverage (Schmuck et al., 2020), may explain that trend. Our study contributes to filling the research gap by looking into the link between social media use patterns and people’s emotional responses to politics (i.e., political anger). Drawing on our findings, promoting a more heterogeneous social media news use and discussion network can provide an alternative pathway to reducing political anger in the American public. Although political anger has been found to mobilize the public and stimulate political actions, it increases incivility and hostility (Hasell & Weeks, 2016), causes political violence (Claassen, 2016), and exacerbates partisanship and political polarization (Huber et al., 2015). Our results suggest that by altering how individuals engage with social media news people may become less angry, which may trigger a subsequent array of democratically beneficial outcomes such as political tolerance, and less political dogmatism, as well as affect changes in people’s political behavior (Rathnayake & Winter, 2017). From the policy-making perspective, reducing homophily in people’s social and informational networks also seems to be the key. Social media platforms shall address the disadvantages brought by algorithmic news personalization, and efforts should be made to provide social media users with diverse information content, encourage users to follow accounts with opposing views, and interact with peers and news sources that encompass dissimilar political beliefs.

Albeit important, the study is not immune to limitations. There are several shortcomings that must be acknowledged and that might ideally serve as an orientation for further research on the relationship between social media news use, social media political homophily, and political anger. First, while political anger is widely spread across countries, our survey data was collected in a single country, the U.S., and even though it is a panel dataset, it is based only on one year, 2019. In this sense, while the autoregressive models have shown that overall levels of political anger vary to a moderate extent in four months, it is important to see whether choosing a different time lag will make our variables of interest gain more importance (Eveland & Morey, 2011). We also encourage future studies to examine how the link between anger and political behavior may differ across racial groups (Phoenix, 2019), as this study controls for a non-granular white versus minorities dichotomy, and further racial effect nuances may be possible (Magee & Louie, 2016).

Similarly, additional works, comparative in nature, may shed light on the existence of different patterns between social media political homophily and political anger with various degrees of overall anger in the country. Macro, meso, and individual measurement instruments may prove useful here. For instance, there might be country-level moderators for the relationship identified such as the country’s economic condition (Rico et al., 2020), ethnically located injustice (Holmes, 2004), and/or sexism culture (Kay, 2019). Additionally, we measured social media news use and social media political homophily with a self-report survey, which is subject to recall bias and social desirability bias (Scharkow, 2016). As computational methods are increasingly integrated into political communication research, it would be interesting to measure social media news use and social media political homophily with behavioral tracking data. While future studies can adopt more unobstructive measures to palliate potential bias, recent research consistently shows that although self-reported and tracking data on social media news use encompass discrepancies, overall, they positively correlate (Ernala et al., 2020; Haenschen, 2020), which minimizes the impact of this limitation. Besides, it is worth noting that the behavioral tracking data is also subject to measurement error due to the variations of the operating system setting (Jones-Jang et al., 2020), which yields a caveat for using the tracking data as an objective benchmark. As suggested by Jürgens et al. (2020), future work can address the methodological challenge by developing a more advanced digital trace tracking tool, using source-and-issue-specific survey questions, employing longitudinal survey designs (which is done in our study), and combining different data sources. Overall, this study helps clarify the informational and network discussion antecedents of political anger, in a modest but much-needed empirical assessment for the field.