One of the major concerns with social media is that it can create echo chambers: by surrounding ourselves with people and content that share our points of view, we can become increasingly entrenched in those opinions. Some have argued that this effect is responsible for the increasing political polarization of the United States. But does social media really deserve all of the blame? Research on this topic has been difficult since social media companies do not grant scientists access to their proprietary information. However, a team of 17 independent researchers from 12 universities was recently given unprecedented access to Facebook data, allowing them to conduct a series of studies on how social media shapes our views. A special investigator was also involved to ensure that corporate interests did not bias the scientists’ reports.
One of these studies focused on social media echo chambers. The researchers wanted to answer two questions: first, how biased are users’ Facebook feeds, and second, does this bias affect political views? To answer the first question, they analyzed 2020 data for all adult Americans with active Facebook accounts, finding that the majority of content that people see on the platform comes from “like-minded sources” (i.e., sources that share the user’s political leanings). These data confirm that social media feeds often act as echo chambers. To answer the second question, the researchers conducted a study of 23,377 consenting Facebook users, reducing the amount of like-minded content served to these users by one third over a period of three months. The participants completed surveys before and after the experiment, allowing the researchers to assess the impact of a less biased social media feed on political opinions. They found that the intervention had no effect on the users’ responses. Reducing polarization and bridging America’s political divide will require more than just a better social media algorithm.
While the researchers did not find evidence that social media echo chambers worsen political polarization, they still recommend caution. “These findings do not mean that there is no reason to be concerned about social media in general or Facebook in particular,” said Brendan Nyhan, the lead author of the study. “We need greater data transparency that enables further research into what’s happening on social media platforms and its impacts. We hope our evidence serves as the first piece of the puzzle and not the last.”
This study was led by Brendan Nyhan (Department of Government, Dartmouth College), Jaime Settle (Department of Government and Data Science, College of William & Mary), Emily Thorson (Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University), and Magdalena Wojcieszak (Department of Communication, University of California, Davis). The research was conducted in collaboration with Meta, the company that owns and operates Facebook.
Managing Correspondent: Emily Pass
Press Article: Researchers Examine ‘Like-Minded Sources’ on Social Media (Dartmouth College)
Original Journal Article: Like-minded sources on Facebook are prevalent but not polarizing (Nature)
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