Over the next three hours, Belsom bops around the Web checking out the latest campaign news. Her sources are big and small, from nearby Greenville to faraway California, but they have one thing in common: With rare exceptions, the news and commentary sites Belsom visits share her worldview, which she describes as “conservative, tea party, Christian.”
She reads about why Ron Paul is out of step with conservatism at Commentary magazine’s site and Breitbart.tv. She takes in arguments about why Mitt Romney is too moderate at newsmax.com and Vision to America. And she nods firmly as she looks at comments from fellow Newt Gingrich supporters at teapartynation.com and the Washington Times site.
With just hours remaining before South Carolina’s Republican primary, it’s clear to campaign strategists and voters alike that the revolution in how Americans get their news has dramatically altered the political process. There’s more campaign news and commentary out there than ever before, but more and more citizens are tucking themselves inside information silos where they see mainly what they already agree with. The result, according to voters, campaign strategists and a raft of studies that track users’ news choices, is an electorate in which conservatives and liberals often have not only their own opinions but also their own sets of facts, making it harder than ever to approach common ground.
The audience is so polarized that even when consumers look for more entertaining sorts of news, such as travel or sports stories, they tend to choose sources that match their political leanings — conservatives to Fox News and liberals to National Public Radio, for example — according to a study by professors at Stanford and UCLA that dubbed this phenomenon “selective exposure.”
Forty miles away from Belsom’s book-lined study, James Akers Jr. joins nine members of his weekly breakfast club at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville for a morning of happy yammering about politics and the joys (and tyranny) of Facebook and Twitter.
“We don’t need CNN anymore,” says Lee Ann Carter, who, like most of those at the table, met Akers on Facebook. “We have James’s Twitter.”
Akers, a 30-year-old real estate agent who is also vice chairman of Greenville County’s Democratic Party, is an incessant tweeter, the kind of guy who, if he wakes up at 3 a.m., checks his Twitter feed before he goes to the bathroom. At meals, friends have to order him to quit tweeting long enough to down some food.