Online readers didn’t polarise during Lok Sabha polls: Study

Karishma Mehrotra
Indian online news consumers appear to have overlapping and perse consumption patterns across the political spectrum, according to an Oxford study accessed by The Indian Express.

Unlike other partisan news audience around the world, India s online news readers did not polarise into separate audience bubbles during the recent Lok Sabha elections. Instead, Indian online news consumers appear to have overlapping and perse consumption patterns across the political spectrum, according to an Oxford study accessed by The Indian Express.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism researchers compared online audience behaviour between 37 digital-born outlets and 64 legacy media outlets, 38 of which were regionally-focused. They collected election-related Facebook posts (66,000 from 78 news outlets) and tweets (63 million from 73 news outlets) between April 11 and May 19, as well as Web traffic statistics for 101 outlets between January and March this year. They chose organisations with the highest online performance.

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The researchers mapped tweets and audience data of news outlets to determine if Indian audience were overlapping across outlets or polarised into clusters around certain organisations. The online polarisation phenomenon – often referred to as filter bubbles or echo chambers – has been associated with algorithms that filter content personalised to the user. For example, studies have shown how a Left-leaning Facebook user who clicks or likes mostly liberal news content trains the algorithm to present more content on their news feed that agrees with their perspective.

The new findings from the recent elections, however, suggest Indian online audiences have omnivorous media diets and do not fall into the predicted polarised patterns.

The Times of India, NDTV, and The Indian Express had central positions in the Twitter networks, which means their audiences were most likely to interact with most other outlets. On the open Web, digital-born outlets also occupy these central positions. This suggests that the audiences of these newer digital-born outlets also navigate a perse set of media outlets, including the mainstream legacy outlets, without necessarily being trapped within echo chambers, the report states.

Our analysis thus provides a reminder that while the existence of active, visible, and vocal partisan minorities engaged in often highly polarised debates (sometimes in orchestrated ways driven by particular political agendas) can create the impression that the overall online environment in India is fragmented along partisan lines, our findings suggests that is not the case overall.

The report also found that both regional and national digital-native outlets had higher engagement per thousand followers on FB and Twitter than legacy media websites, even though digital-born outlets have smaller overall website audiences than legacy media websites.

Great Andhra, One India, Swarajya, and The Wire had highest FB engagement, it found. Twitter had less clear category trends, with BBC India receiving the highest engagement, followed by OpIndia, Sabrang, and Deccan Herald. As for active content posting, regional news outlets prioritised content creation on Facebook, while digital-born and legacy outlets prioritised Twitter.

Regional newspapers posted the largest volume of political content on FB by a huge margin, especially in the run-up to the second polling day on April 18. Following them far behind were national TV broadcasters, national daily newspapers, and, finally, national digital-born outlets.

All four categories, the study found, are more equal when it comes to Twitter, with digital-born organisations and national daily newspapers posting the most, followed closely by national broadcasters.

Video content saw the highest engagement, with the most engagement on an ABP News Facebook video of Modi seeking blessings from Mother Hiraba before voting and a Times Now Twitter video about proxy voting in West Bengal .

The Indian case is not just intrinsically important, but also of broader relevance as an example of a market in the Global South characterised by rapid growth in internet access and a significant number of new digital-born news media competing with legacy media for audience attention and engagement, the report states.