Project on Democracy and the Internet
Qualitative research suggests that many American conservatives perceive that liberals hold elitist views – seeing themselves as morally and intellectually superior to conservatives – and further that these perceptions partly fuel conservatives’ resentment of liberals. Little systematic data exists, however, on how widespread this perception is among conservatives and what effects it may have on democratic processes, such as the biased processing and dissemination of political news online. The two ongoing studies below are intended to help fill this current gap.
The first study is a nationally-representative survey designed to (1) develop and test a valid measure of elitism distinct from in-group favoritism, and (2) examine what are the potential causes and consequences of these perceptions, particularly the relationships to consumption and dissemination of online news and social media. Elitism as a concept and phenomenon is multidimensional (i.e., political, economic, cultural), but research on (anti-)elitism and democratic processes has primarily focused on the political or economic dimensions where by definition elites are a small group. We examine cultural elitism that in contrast is defined by social status not power, and has been found to be a salient dimension among conservatives and especially Trump supporters who perceive a drop in their social status in the United States. Thus, we operationalize elitism as belief in intellectual and moral superiority and use this conceptualization to measure Republicans and Democrats in-group elitism and perception of out-group elitism.
A primary focus of the survey is also to examine how perceptions of out-group elitism among groups is both shaped by and shapes online news consumption. Do Americans who primarily use the internet for news (vs. television, radio, print) perceive greater out-group elitism? Are conservatives who perceive greater liberal elitism more likely to find liberal news sources inaccurate, and vice versa? How does social media use and the perceived accuracy of news in social media affect these perceptions? Finally, are there differences in how the internet impacts ideological and partisan perceptions of out-group elitism? We will also collect data on participants’ demographics, resentment towards different types of elites (i.e., wealthy, educated, political), moralization of politics, feelings towards and degree of interaction with both political parties, political knowledge, and support for prominent political figures as other important potential explanatory and outcome variables.
The second study is a survey experiment designed to test if perceptions of out-group elitism affect the likelihood of rejecting or accepting counterfactual news reports (i.e., “fake news”) favorable to one’s group. This examines how perceptions of “disinformation” affect how democratic societies build informed opinions in the new media environment, an important democratic issue. The circulation of “fake news” on the internet was widespread during the 2016 presidential election leading to a congressional hearing with top representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google in 2017, and continues to be a problem during the 2018 midterm elections. It is therefore important to study and demonstrate the causality of this relationship given the prevalence of disinformation online which will likely continue and grow. Drawing from the validated elitism measure and findings from the nationally-representative survey, we will experimentally manipulate the reported prevalence of own group elitism among ideological and partisan groups (Democrats and Republicans). We will then examine if conservatives told the prevalence of liberal elitism is high are more likely to believe “fake news” that favors Republicans, and vice versa. The survey experiment will also measure potential moderators and mediators, such as strength of political party identification, outgroup resentment, and political correctness.