Social Context and Information Seeking: Examining the Effects of Network Attitudinal Composition on Engagement with Political Information

Levitan, Lindsey; Wronski, Julie
Political Behavior

The people we associate with everyday have an important influence on our exposure and reactions to political stimuli. Social network members in particular can have a dramatic impact on our political views and behavior. Prior research suggests that these attitudinal differences may reflect the information available in a social network: attitudinally congruent networks expose individuals to supporting positions, bolstering their views, while heterogeneous networks provide information on both sides of an issue, generating doubt and ambivalence. In contrast, the current studies examine the effects of individuals’ networks in motivating them to find and engage with new political information on their own. Using ANES panel data, a laboratory-based information board session that examines behavior in detail, and an experimental design that manipulates network composition, we find that individuals in attitudinally heterogeneous social networks are more likely to seek out and attend to political information. They spend more time looking for political information, and then (having found it) spend more time reviewing that new information compared to those whose network members are more like-minded. An experimental study further demonstrates that network composition causally determines these information-seeking preferences. Implications for democratic citizenship in light of these findings are discussed.