Online political rags are getting lots of hits now that the US presidential election is in full swing. Like a teeter totter, opinions may be weighted up or down. How can you tell if you are getting a balanced view of the facts? Try Balancer, a free plug in for Chrome developed by university professors and their students.

Political bias is uncovered on popular and obscure websites

Political bias is uncovered on popular and obscure websites

The system will check out political bias on the sites you choose to read, then give you suggestions to see what other view points are out there. Balancer looks at more than 10,000 news sites representing a wide political spectrum from the far left to the far right. It even differentiates between columnists in the same publication.

Sean Munson, assistant professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, was instrumental in developing the tool that is fun and informative. A cartoon shows a character balancing a set of red – right/conservative leaning – and blue – left/democratic leaning – blocks while on a tightrope. The blocks tip as the websites are analyzed. Begun while Munson was a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, under the guidance of Professor Paul Resnick in the School of Information, the original research was funded by a $16,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in March 2010.

In a paper by Resnick and Munson they asked: ?Is a polarized society inevitable, where people choose to be exposed to only political news and commentary that reinforces their existing viewpoints??

Their research originally focused on analysis of comments and posts on blogs. The students were to help develop the coding scheme and code a large data set of collected material. Most of the coding was done by hand, however the students were also to explore and use automated coding of the text. They built a tool to visualize some of the selection algorithms. The first version was a Firefox extension. Now a Google Gadget displays popularly linked items from political blogs, selected by the Sidelines algorithm.

Balancer software, like the 2008 election results map, tries to show which way not states, but websites, lean in the Red Republican vs. Blue Democratic battle.

Balancer software, like the 2008 election results map, tries to show which way not states, but websites, lean in the Red Republican vs. Blue Democratic battle.

Munson lists top US political news and opinion stories from the last 48 hours, based on links from over 500 blogs. Colored highlights show the average political slant of the blogs.

Balancer has a list of all the sites they monitor. Without checking who’s behind the site or what they might espouse, this author picked a few with interesting names to include here: angryblacklady, beltwayblips, villagevoice, swamppolitics, campainmoney, dcexaminer, elephantbiz, girlontheright, horsesass, justforeignpolicy, wheatandweeds, scaredmonkeys, and my favorite: yikes101.

Balancer reviews blogs and well known news sites

Balancer reviews blogs and well known news sites

You can check out all the opinion mongers on the Balancer list. It also includes most of the major legitimate news outlets across the US and a few from other countries. To become involved and have your news reading habits analyzed you can download the free plugin at the Balancer site.

Munson is trying to get a handle on people’s habits and determine if technology has an influence on their behavior. He has been politically involved for some time, first with his high school political blog which led to press credentials at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he was a junior in college.

The Google Chrome plug in is an on-going research project. Therefore, your activity is transmitted back to the team, but Balancer only sends your browsing history as it pertains to known news sites. They say they cannot link your history to you personally, only to your extension.

The Balance website explains that it classifies pages based on their address which has been reviewed in regards to being linked to by mostly liberals or conservatives and those regularly visited by liberals, conservatives, or a mix. They agree: ?This is imperfect, but in aggregate, it’s pretty good.?