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“Online right-wingers” were not found to be vulnerable or isolated Investigating the formation of public opinion on the internet

August 26, 2021

“Online right-wingers” were not found to be vulnerable or isolated

Investigating the formation of public opinion on the internet
By Kikuko Nagayoshi
Associate Professor, Institute of Social Science

 

Book co-authored by Associate Professor Nagayoshi
Netto Uyoku towa Nani ka (“What are online right-wingers?”) (Seikyusha, May 2019, 1600 yen plus tax)

Prejudices against different races and foreigners have existed in society since long ago. However, the spread of the internet appears to have increased their presence. Through a public opinion survey involving about eighty thousand people, Associate Professor Kikuko Nagayoshi of the Institute of Social Science revealed that the picture that emerged of those who have become known as “online right-wingers” is different from what society assumes.

Figure. Relationship between online right-wingers and employment status/household income
The percentages of regular employees and managers/self-employed are slightly higher in online right-wingers, with no marked difference in income distribution.
Source: Created by the author based on data from the “Questionnaire about political participation of citizens”

The internet has become essential for our daily modern lives. I have studied the influence of the internet on the forming of public opinion. It has drastically increased the amount of information we can access and expanded the circle of people we can communicate with, enabling us to access a variety of opinions. Meanwhile, because the internet is a medium that is used to actively search for information, and owing to the filtering function that is incorporated in search engine algorithms, people may become more likely to access information posted by like-minded people, or information that agrees with their own opinion. In this case, an “echo chamber” phenomenon is thought to occur, in which accessing only opinions and information that support one’s own views further solidifies one’s original opinion.

In collaboration with Associate Professor Hiroki Takikawa of Tohoku University, I studied whether the echo chamber phenomenon actually occurs by focusing on people who are thought to be highly interested in politics and regarded as opinion leaders on Twitter (those who have at least 500 followers and have tweeted 1000 times or more). The results showed the polarization of these opinion leaders in terms of both network and tweet topics. We found six distinct communities, one of which mainly contains users that follow left-wing leaders, and another one of which is mostly comprised of users following right-wing leaders. Their discussion topics were also different, with the former focusing on issues such as government corruption and conspiracy law and the latter arguing about relations with neighboring countries. This suggests that people having different political views do not interact with each other, at least in the space of Twitter.

Ouverture des Etats Généraux à Versailles le 5 mai 1789, a painting of the National Assembly during the French Revolution (Isidore Stanislaus Helman and Charles Monnet/Bibliothèque nationale de France). The term “right-wingers” originates from those supporting the decision on the king’s absolute veto, who were on the right side of the chair.
(Reference) van Beek, W. E. A. and F. Bienfait. 2014. “Political left and right.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 2 (1): 335-346.

The issue of political polarization is often talked about in connection with online right-wingers. Although there is no clear definition of online right-wingers, the term generally refers to those who post or disseminate xenophobic rhetoric or historical revisionist opinions on the internet. They have been associated mainly with an image of the socioeconomically vulnerable and isolated. I studied whether this image of online right-wingers is valid using data from a web survey of 77084 participants registered with a research company. I defined online right-wingers as those who have xenophobic and conservative views and have posted or disseminated their opinions about political/social themes on the internet, and compared them with those who do not fit this definition. No difference was found in the level of education, household income, marital status or the presence or absence of someone they can confide in. This may suggest that the image of online right-wingers as the vulnerable and isolated is not valid. In a sense, this image may have resulted from “prejudice” against right-wingers by society. In the future, I will investigate the relationship between the internet and the shaping of public opinion by looking into mechanisms that disseminate opinions across clusters on the internet.

 


* This article was originally printed in Tansei 42 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of March 2021.

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