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Greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among US demographic groups

  1. Jesse M. Shapiroc,d
  1. aDepartment of Economics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
  2. bStanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
  3. cNational Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA 02138;
  4. dEconomics Department, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912
  1. Edited by Larry M. Bartels, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, and approved August 16, 2017 (received for review April 20, 2017)


By many measures, Americans have become increasingly polarized in recent decades. We study the role of the Internet and social media in explaining this trend. We find that polarization has increased the most among the demographic groups least likely to use the Internet and social media, suggesting that the role of these factors is limited.


We combine eight previously proposed measures to construct an index of political polarization among US adults. We find that polarization has increased the most among the demographic groups least likely to use the Internet and social media. Our overall index and all but one of the individual measures show greater increases for those older than 65 than for those aged 18–39. A linear model estimated at the age-group level implies that the Internet explains a small share of the recent growth in polarization.


  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: lboxell{at}stanford.edu.
  • Author contributions: L.B., M.G., and J.M.S. designed research; L.B., M.G., and J.M.S. performed research; L.B. analyzed data; and L.B., M.G., and J.M.S. wrote the paper.

  • Conflict of interest statement: M.G. is a member of the Toulouse Network of Information Technology, a research group funded by Microsoft. J.M.S. has, in the past, been a paid visitor at Microsoft Research and a paid consultant for a digital news startup; his spouse has written articles for several online news outlets, for which she was paid. L.B. declares no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1706588114/-/DCSupplemental.

Online Impact

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