Is Dating In The Internet Age Ruining Politics?

A new study finds that online dating might be responsible for the increasing polarization of politics.

By Johannah King-Slutzky

A study released in Political Behavior Monday has found that online dating may be partly responsible for the increasing polarization of American politics. Here's what the researchers had to say: 

Spouses are highly correlated in their political preferences, and research in behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology shows that political preferences develop through a complex interaction of social upbringing, life experience, immediate circumstance, and genes and hormones....Consequently, if people with similar political values produce children, there will be more individuals at the ideological extremes over generations. 

Dating profiles might affect political polarization, then, by encouraging netizens to filter potential partners by ideology. Where in the past, a first look at someone might involve assessments of conversational style or posture, now we skip to the "about me" to learn about job, lifestyle, and political affiliation. Even dating sites that don't collect info on political views might fall victim to this problem, which the Political Behavior researchers call "a mystery." Perhaps dating profiles inadvertently sort us according to only seemingly non political factors, to our detriment. Music, movie, and television preferences are all demonstrably correlated to political views, for example.

The Atlantic Wire raises an interesting possibility: could this be chalked up to geography? To wit: "An April 2012 survey [of New York City resients] found that 82 percent of the city was registered Democratic...So there's a four-to-one chance that the person you meet randomly on the street will share your registration if you're a Democrat." Isn't it more likely that you'll find somebody who shares your voting habits if you stick around the local dive bar or small town church? But chalking political stratification up to larger ongoing geographical trends isn't that simple in a world where the online and the offline comingle.

The question of how geography, diversity, and online persona interact is a notoriously tricky one. Different social media are affected by geography in different ways. Twitter users, for instance, rarely develop geographically sensitive online connections. A 2013 study analyzed GPS data and twitter interactions to determine that "Geographic proximity is found to play a minimal role both in who users communicate with and what they communicate about."

Other online social networks, like Facebook, are more heavily influenced by spatial constraints. Determining the relationship between geography and social networking must take into account both group size and strength of ties. A person with 3,000 Facebook friends will be differently constrained by geography than a person with 150 friends. And different Facebook users demonstrate different attachment styles with their online friends. Is a Facebook user with 150 friends (20 of them emotionally close) more or less likely to have geographically proximal friends than a Facebooker with 3,000 friends (10 of which are close)?

Are social networks – including dating sites – affecting polarization more than old school ideology-sieves like geography? And how does social networking interact with IRL space in the first place? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Follow Johannah on Twitter @jjjjjjjjohannah

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