JITP 2011: The Future of Computational Social Science

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There is a natural tension between the effects on public opinion of social networks and the news media. It is widely believed that social networks tend to harmonize opinions within them, but the presence of media may accentuate diversity by inserting discordant messages. On the other hand, in a totalitarian state where the government controls the media, social networks may mitigate the homogenizing pressure of a regime’s propaganda. The tendency of opinion to follow the “official line” may be mitigated because opponents of the government interact on a personal level and bolster one another’s views. This paper employs agent-based modeling—an approach that allows researchers to observe preference change the individual, social network, and the society levels—to explore conditions under which social networks and news media influence citizens’ preferences. Citizen agents are embedded within networks of interpersonal communication and can be by influenced by widely disseminated news media. Situations such as the one where there are no news media, one with polarized news media, and one where there is only a monolithic (state controlled) media that broadcasts a single, consistent message. We also explore the role of selective perception in these conditions. The results indicate that the overall impact of news media is contingent on the variety of preferences news media provide as well as on the willingness of agents to accept media messages at face value.