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After Newtown, Readers Surfed Sites That Strengthened Existing Gun Views

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A year and a half after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., policy makers, school-safety experts, and educators complain that it's difficult to advocate for effective policy after school shootings. That's because the events are often immediately polarizing, quickly becoming a talking point for people on both sides of the gun-control debate. Rather than look at a spectrum of issues, many people grow further entrenched in their existing viewpoints, they say.

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New research into the Web-browsing habits of thousands of people following the December 2012 event supports that
critique. After the event, Web surfers were ultimately more likely to read Web pages that more extremely reflected the positions of the sites they previously visited, researchers from Microsoft found. 

"The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the 'filter bubble' effect, where users get exposed only to opinions that align with their current views. This effect, where the 'web world' does not reflect the richness of views in the 'real world' may be exacerbated for polarizing topics. We take as polarizing or controversial topics those linked to opposing perspectives, such as abortion, gun control vs. rights, labeling of genetically modified food, and death penalty."

To reach their conclusions, researchers analyzed the Web browser logs of more than 29 million anonymous users in the United States in the month before and after the Newtown shootings. They filtered out irrelevant gun-related website visits (those related to glue guns, for example), and filtered resulting content into six categories: purely factual, highly balanced, extreme gun control, moderate gun control, moderate gun rights, and extreme gun rights. Here's a graph included in their report that summarizes their findings.

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The researchers drew the following conclusions from their analysis:

  • "All in all, people use the web to largely access agreeable information, as signified by the low diversity of labels capturing viewpoints expressed in visited domains."
  • "The domains provide a myopic view in the polarizing topic, showing low diversity in the presented stances."
  • "When the external event threatens to influence users directly, they explore content outside their filter bubble."
  • "Overall, half of the transitions are from gun control to gun rights pages. As for the Sandy Hook shootings, they make the [web-user data] system move into extreme stances, and mainly towards content taking an extreme gun rights stance."
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