Facebook doesn’t change political views, but it does change what we see

Facebook’s impact on public opinion

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The Future. Is Facebook responsible for political polarization in the US? The answer, thanks to four new studies published across Nature and Science, is complicated. What’s clear is Facebook’s proprietary algorithm does have a profound impact on what users see on the platform, but whether that content changes hearts and minds is another thing entirely. That phenomenon runs deeper than the influence of one app… and may be at the heart of 12 more studies on the way.

Algorithmic echo
The Verge breaks down three experiments to test if what’s on a user’s FB timeline has the power to change their views:

  • One where users couldn’t see “reshared” posts
  • A second where the feed was in reverse chronological order
  • A third where “like-minded” sources were reduced by a third

The results?

  • The changes to the feeds did alter how much “political,” “uncivil,” and “untrustworthy” content the users saw, with different outcomes for each experiment.
  • Yet the users didn’t report any “measurable” changes to their views on various issues, refuting the belief that changing the newsfeed to show posts chronologically will fix polarization.
  • But there is one universal conclusion: users spending less time on the platform wasn’t as compelling without Meta’s underlying algorithm.

Unsurprisingly, Meta (which provided access to the studies) took a victory lap with those results. But one of the researchers, Meagan Phelan, said not so fast: “The findings of the research suggest Meta algorithms are an important part of what’s keeping people divided.” It’s the classic algorithms create echo chambers conclusion — amplifying our already deeply-held beliefs.

But as Platformer’s Casey Newton notes, the studies, which focused on data from September to December 2020, occurred after Meta enacted “break the glass” measures to ensure users saw higher quality news and also didn’t take into account how social media, in general,  has changed how people ingest information. If anything, these studies are just the start.


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