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UW researcher balances online consumption of politics

In response to election season and political bias on the Internet, UW researcher Sean Munson created a tool to make the information age a little less asymmetrical and a lot more balanced.

Balancer, a free plug-in for the Google Chrome browser, aims to compensate for political one-sidedness on the Internet.

“The Internet makes it easier to access a huge range of sources and to dive into exchanges with people who disagree,” said Munson, a new UW assistant professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering. “Sometimes those look more like conversations, and sometimes they look more like shouting matches.”

To facilitate well-rounded conversations, Balancer analyzes a person’s online reading habits, calculates the bias, and suggests sites that offer different points of view.

When activated, Balancer shows a cartoon balancing on a tight rope. Representing the bias in what the user reads, the cartoon holds a stick with a red and blue block on either end. When the reader is consuming a disproportionate amount of one particular bias, the block grows and the cartoon shows distress in trying to balance the two blocks.

Ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative, the tool classifies more than 10,000 news websites on a bias spectrum using results of previous studies and existing media biases. The goal is not to neutralize political opinions with opposing viewpoints but to encourage a better-rounded discussion online and shed light on reading habits that may be one-sided.

Most students tend to gravitate toward a certain partisan affiliation, said Rebecca Thorpe, UW assistant professor of political science. She said, without neutral political news, the polarization of news cements personal leanings into a certain political camp and is often hard to step back from. Thorpe said political bias in the media can have a huge effect on elections.

“Those with strong partisan affiliations are less likely to perceive a gaffe or mistake from their own party,” Thorpe said. “Often those with the strongest convictions have the strongest voices. The objective is to sway independents, but they are less likely to know how to seek out information.”

UW junior Max Mannisto, majoring in political science, has encountered the same dilemma. Mannisto said seeing everything through a party lens prevents readers from being critical and objective.

“People put faith in where the news comes from, but there are so many different perspectives,” Mannisto said. “You’re more likely to be entertained based on your bias than fully informed.”

Munson developed the tool while earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan, with funding from the National Science Foundation. His concern for political bias stems from a political blog he started in high school that went on to award him press credentials in the 2004 Democratic Convention. Instead of offering a constructive conversation, the blog attracted like-minded readers, and Munson “didn’t feel like there was any sort of deliberative discussion or progress made.” He subsequently discontinued the blog.

While Balancer is still in development, it is available for download in the Chrome Web Store. Munson said he would like to implement more targeted ways to classify individual articles and to include more than just Democratic and Republican slants.

“I’d love to move past the simplistic left-right classification of political viewpoints and to also include other facets of diversity — not just viewpoints, but how is the information communicated, such as with narratives or with statistics,” Munson said.

While a few dozen users have already enabled the Balancer plug-in, researchers anticipate more to be using Balancer before the November election.

This quarter Munson teaches a research class at the UW about the Internet and the 2012 election, analyzing the same issues with political bias that Balancer hopes to address.

Reach contributing writer Carryn Vande Griend at development@dailyuw.com.Twitter: @carrynvg

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