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Can a plug-in change your politics?

Balancer / UW / Univ. of Mich.

The Balancer plug-in provides a cartoon character that indicates the balance of your browsing, from conservative red to liberal blue.

If you were told that your online reading habits lean toward the conservative or liberal side of the political spectrum, would you seek out more diversity? Or would you stick with the sources who agree with your point of view? Inquiring researchers want to know — and to find out, they've created Balancer, a free plug-in for Google's Chrome browser.

"The top question that I'm most interested in is, can having real-time feedback about your online news reading habits affect the balance of the news that you read?" said Sean Munson, an assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington.

Balancer determines whether your reading diet is fair and balanced by recording your visits to websites on a "whitelist" of 10,000 news sources and blogs. Each website has a rating on the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, typically based on previous research — for example, the studies that University of Chicago researchers Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro have conducted on media bias and slant. (One of their studies, from 2010, rated the San Francisco Chronicle as the most liberal U.S. newspaper and the Washington Times as the most conservative.) Munson developed ratings for additional news sources, based on the other websites they linked to. (Yes, Cosmic Log is on the list, along with every other news website you've probably ever visited.)

When the Balancer plug-in is installed, a button is added to the browser bar that shows you a cartoon character balancing a conservative-red and a liberal-blue block on a stick. The comparative size of the blocks serves as an indication of how balanced your news diet is. If the stick is tilted way to one side, the cartoon will suggest websites from the other side that would bring your score into balance.

Some of the participants will get the verdict from Balancer right away; others will have to wait for a month while the plug-in gathers control data. That way, Munson and his colleagues can gauge the effect of real-time monitoring.

Personality profile
There's one more data-mining twist: When you sign up for the plug-in, you'll be asked a set of questions about personality attributes: Do you consider yourself liberal or conservative? Are you the life of the party? Do you often forget to put things back in their proper place? The answers to such questions add a dimension to Munson's research.

"It's possible that different personality attributes predict reading behavior, as well as how amenable someone is to being persuaded to change reading habits," he told me. "We have found that some people do in fact seek out diversity, but there are also some people who are 'diversity-challenged' when it comes to online news reading."

The plug-in was developed at the University of Michigan, where Munson earned his doctorate, and works only with the Chrome Web browser. It misses out on anything you read via other browsers, including mobile apps. Funding for the project came from the National Science Foundation.

When Munson put his own reading habits to the test, he was surprised to find out how slanted his news diet turned out to be. So he's curious to find out how inclined other people might be to change their ways. "Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior," he said in a news release. "If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?"

Of course, most people probably think they're already fair and balanced, no matter how their political views look from the outside. So far, a few dozen people have signed up for the Balancer experiment, but Munson and his colleagues hope to sign up many more between now and the November elections.

Eventually, Munson's findings may influence the design of online search engines and recommendation websites. Today, your browser may ask if you're "feeling lucky." Someday, it just might ask if you feel like hearing a different opinion.

But wait, there's more:
By now, you're probably asking, "What about privacy?" A browser plug-in that keeps track of your reading habits and matches them up with your personality may sound like a big wet kiss for Big Brother. Munson's aware of the concern: He said the plug-in has been designed to anonymize all the data coming in, and will only keep track of the sites on the 10,000-website whitelist. Any other data — including records of your visits to the naughty parts of the Internet — will go no farther than your own computer, he said.

"We did that partly to minimize the traffic on our servers, and also to protect privacy," Munson told me. "We've tried to collect as little data as necessary for the study."

Do you trust him on that? What do you think about the idea of tracking your Web browsing for research purposes? (Let's face it: That's being done all the time for commercial purposes.) And what do you think about the idea of fair and balanced news browsing? Feel free to go on the record with your comments below.

Update for 8 p.m. Sept. 28: Munson was kind enough to provide the list of websites with liberal/conservative ratings, along with a few caveats. Here's what he says in an email:

"I've put the list, with their scores and a brief explanation of some of the ways that our scoring process can go wrong, at http://balancestudy.org/whitelist-classifiable.html. It's a subset of the full whitelist (not every news source got a score from this process).

"It's important to read this with the mindset that our scoring is pretty rough right now — it's a tool that let me put together the extension but not a research result. In aggregate, this scoring approach does OK and can give (I think) useful feedback, but some individual sites are just misclassified. The differences in scores between sites in each ideological grouping don't mean a whole lot."

It's interesting to take a quick spin through the list and look for anomalies. For example, economist Paul Krugman's blog for The New York Times is titled "The Conscience of a Liberal," but as far as this list is concerned, Krugman is not as liberal as Fox News Insider, the official live blog of Fox News Channel. I suspect that the ratings will be rebalanced as Munson's experiment progresses. 

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.