GENDER DYNAMICS IN MEDIA-DRIVEN BELIEF POLARIZATION
– Disentangling reinforcing processes behind media usage and perception of societal issues
In academia as well as in mainstream media, people are voicing concern that a fragmented media environment, entailing an immense increase of alternative media, may motivate selective exposure, in turn leading to increasingly polarized perceptions of society among the public. Consulting the theory of reinforcing spirals (RSM), there is ample evidence for a reciprocal relationship between selective media exposure and sociotropic beliefs – potentially sparking polarization dynamics. Gaps in societal perceptions have furthermore been noted between men and women, yet never examined in a RSM context. The purpose of this study is thus to analyse whether news media usage in general – and alternative media usage in particular – can explain gender differences in sociotropic beliefs and polarization over time. To address these questions empirically, this thesis relies on longitudinal panel survey data (N=1,508). Through descriptive analyses, path analyses and cross-lagged panel analyses, it examines gendered perceptions on the issues of climate change, immigration and crime and potential gender differences in belief polarization. The main theoretical contribution of this study is ultimately an increased understanding of the dynamics of alternative media usage and issue perception over time through the synthetization of the RSM and theories of sociotropic belief formation.
Taken together, the key finding of this thesis is that gender indeed matters. The results specifically point towards: (1) substantial and significant gender gaps in sociotropic beliefs over time, (2) that disparity in media usage and interpersonal communication cannot account for these gender differences when controlling for ideology and political interest, (3) signs of reinforcing spirals between alternative media, sociotropic beliefs and interpersonal communication and finally (4) gender contingent differences in tendency of polarization through RSM.