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Party Cues, Populism and Selective Exposure to News ꟷ An Investigation Combining Web Tracking and Survey Data

Mixed Methods
Public Opinion
Survey Experiments
Big Data
Sebastian Stier
GESIS, Leibniz
Sebastian Stier
GESIS, Leibniz
Johannes Breuer
GESIS, Leibniz
Pascal Siegers
GESIS, Leibniz
Tobias Gummer
GESIS, Leibniz

The advent of right-wing populist actors and growing mistrust of political elites has coincided with negative public attitudes towards the news media. Given these political predispositions, selective exposure theory predicts that supporters of parties sending anti-media cues and people with populist attitudes would choose their news sources more selectively or actively avoid entire types of news. In order to test these assumptions, we use a novel data set that links web browsing histories from 1,261 German internet users to their responses in an online survey. That way, we can objectively measure people's online behavior while surveying them for sociodemographic variables and political attitudes. The tracking data allows for the construction of multiple dependent variables with varying granularity. We count unique news sites visited by a participant, the number of total visits as well as the duration of visits to news sites. The survey allows us to measure party ID, populist attitudes and control variables like political interest and knowledge.

Our findings in negative binomial regression models show that party cues are strongly related to news consumption, as in all models party ID overshadows the insignificant effects of populist attitudes. Supporters of the German party with the most outspoken anti-media stances, the AfD, expose themselves less to news than supporters of other parties. This pattern remains robust for hard news, soft and tabloid news, and is most pronounced in the case of public broadcasting news. We also make a methodological contribution to the field of survey methodology by showing that unique visits to websites (typically asked in survey recall items) hide relevant variations in the intensity of news consumption as measured by the number of visits and their duration.

Building on these findings derived from observational data, we also investigate the causal effects of party cues on news avoidance. In experiments, we aim to disentangle the already existing mistrust in news media (endogenous factors) from media avoidance induced by the AfD's anti-media signals ("party cues").

Overall, our study demonstrates that there is a strong relationship between partisanship and selective exposure - even in a multiparty system with public broadcasting that is very different from the much-studied U.S. case. We discuss the implications of these results for the integration of the public sphere in democracies.
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