How Political Differentiation of Knowledge Authority Affects Public Understandings of Science and Political Media
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The advent of the internet and social media has spurred an explosion in the number and variety of claims to authoritative knowledge in scientific and political spheres, following a period of unprecedented consolidation of this authority in the institutions of academic science and mainstream political journalism respectively during the twentieth century. This trend has been characterized by stark partisanship, primarily in the sense that conservative movements have sought to increase their influence, guided by the perception that these institutions are dominated by liberal interests. The result has been an information eco-system that is a chaotic, balkanized, and anathema to broadly shared understandings of what constitutes legitimate knowledge. These processes have been well-researched and theorized but major gaps have yet to be addressed including a) how well political partisans are navigating a more diverse and conflicted eco-system, b) what the nefarious social-psychological effects are of this kind of conflict in knowledge authorities, and c) what predicts vulnerability to these effects. In the following studies, I leverage a range of methods including analysis of representative surveys, experiments, and analysis of observational social media data to explore these questions.
Chapter 2 examines these processes in the context of conservative understandings of science, building on studies that have documented steep declines in trust in scientists among conservatives, and attempts to reconcile this finding with stable attitudes toward scientific research itself. Findings from analysis of the General Social Survey suggest that stable conservatives, or those that do not switch to and from a conservative identity at some point, are most skeptical of scientists and most positive toward scientific research as a benefit to society. This suggests conservative identity is orienting for conservatives, allowing them to maintain participation in the scientific field while criticizing an institution they perceive as biased. Chapter 3 examines another area where partisan asymmetries have been observed in the context of knowledge and trust: political disinformation. Previous studies have established that exposure to and sharing of political disinformation (often called “fakes news”) on social media occurs almost exclusively among political conservatives as opposed to liberals. But no study to date has examined how a more diverse and conflicted news environment might be contributing to partisan asymmetries in susceptibility to disinformation. I conduct an experiment to test the effect of exposure to conflicting information on susceptibility to political disinformation. Results suggest that being exposed to conflicting information makes self-identifying “strong liberals” more susceptible to disinformation, but this effect is not observed among any other group. Finally, in Chapter 3, I examine this relationship in the “real world” using the American National Election Study and observational data from Twitter. Findings from these analyses suggest that a) ideologically heterogenous media diets are associated with belief in partisan conspiracy theories among strong partisans and heavy news consumers and b) that those engaging with disinformation on social media consume more political media generally and have more ideologically heterogenous diets. Taken together, these studies highlight the potentially negative large-scale effects that a diverse and polarized knowledge environment can have on individuals’ understandings of scientific and political issues and complicate the emerging common wisdom that exposure to different perspectives alone can help alleviate political polarization and susceptibility to disinformation.
sociology of knowledge
sociology of science
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