Researchers Warn of Preference and Competency Gaps in How Americans Use Technology to Access the News

--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, American university doctoral student.

Technological advances in how we communicate, from the advent of the printing press to the launch of the World Wide Web, have the unique ability to trigger waves of utopian and dystopian claims. Even among scholars, some have been prone to this exaggerated response. These dramatic calls for alarm or elation hardly ever come to pass, but many of these technologies do permanently reshape the form and means of communication. Due to their relative novelty, digital technologies like broadband and mobile communications, particularly cellular phones capable of accessing the Internet on the go, are still undergoing this prediction and review process as they are incorporated into our daily lives.

One lingering concern that scholars often have about new technologies is the impact that they will have on political participation. Markus Prior illustrates this in his examination of the role of cable television and the Internet in relation to political knowledge gaps among segments of the public. His study is particularly interesting in its amalgamation of two different generations of technology. Cable television has been around longer, with a full generation of adults having grown up with cable TV in their homes, while the Internet is new enough that the first generation of digital natives is just now entering college.

Prior suggests that the cumulative effect of these two technological advancements is to create a high-choice media environment that far surpasses the limited options of the formative days of broadcast television when just a few networks dominated. Positioning himself in contrast to academics like Cass Sunstein, who suggested that increased media choice allows partisan individuals to selectively ignore discordant political information, Prior argues that the real concern raised by this ability to pick and choose sources from the larger media landscape is that individuals lacking innate interest in politics can avoid it all together by focusing on entertainment outlets.

Analyzing a combination of panel and cross-sectional survey data, he goes on to illustrate how a high-choice media environment simultaneously increases participation and information-seeking in politically inclined individuals while allowing the less inclined to avoid incidental exposure to political information via outlets such as newspapers and broadcast news. Prior also shows in his analysis that these preferences gaps also lead to gaps in political participation in the form of voter turn-out. 

While Prior warns of disengagement brought on by technology, Scott Campbell and Nojin Kwak look hopefully to the rise of mobile communication as a potential means of reinvigorating this dimension of civic life. In addition to fostering perpetual interaction through ultraportability, Campbell and Kwak suggest that mobile communications are particularly relevant because they enable lower cost access to online information that traditional home-based Internet access.

In a survey study, they found that mobile use was positively correlated with political participation whether individuals used their phones primarily for information exchange or for entertainment. This latter finding, the connection between recreational use of mobile technology and political participation, is intriguing because it contrasts previous findings to the opposite effect. Furthermore, while the mechanism and explanation for this phenomenon is not revealed by this study, it does hint at the potential for mobile use to replace some of the incidental exposure to news and information essential to political participation that Prior argues has been lost in our high-choice media environment. If entertainment-minded individuals are able to opt out of news and political participation through cable television and Internet use, then an increase in political participation associated with recreational mobile use could reveal new strategies for engaging a broad audience with further research.

Another interesting facet of the Campbell and Kwak study concerns the role of user understanding of and familiarity with technological devices. Evoking Esther Hargittai’s concept of a “second-level” digital divide, they found that technological fluency was also an important factor affecting political engagement related to mobile use. While the digital divide is commonly understood to refer to a problem of access to technology among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, the extension of this notion illuminates a broader barrier to productive use of new technology: the ability to comprehend and control how these increasingly sophisticated devices work.

Having evolved from simple mechanisms for making phone calls on the move, cell phones are rapidly incorporating many of the features traditionally associated with desktop and laptop computers. New user interfaces like touchscreens, while ostensibly designed to maximize intuitive interaction, often come naturally to younger generations while requiring older individuals to adapt from previous push button modes.

While physical and functional accessibility continue to be primary concerns surrounding the spread of new technologies, the studies by Campbell, Kwak and Prior demonstrate the need for rational approaches to assessing the potential positive and negatives outcomes of their adoption. While Prior finds troubling news for voter turnout specifically and political participation generally in his analysis of the high-choice media environment spawned by cable television and Internet technologies, Campbell and Kwak find potential for reversing that trend in mobile communications, though warning of the likelihood of “competency” gaps. In the end, both conclude that much research is still needed to parse out a more complete understanding of how these technological advancements impact our lives through their daily use, which is the most rational conclusion of all when dealing with such relative unknowns.

--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.


Campbell, Scott W., and Nojin Kwak. "Mobile Communication and Civil Society: Linking Patterns and Places of Use to Engagement with Others in Public." Human Communication Research 37.2 (2011): 207-22. Print.

 Prior, Markus. "News Vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout." American Journal of Political Science 49.3 (2005): 577-92. Print.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.