New Studies Reveal Facebook's Role in Political Polarization

Emmett Whitfield

29 Jul 2023

New Studies Reveal Facebook's Role in Political Polarization

Recent studies from interdisciplinary researchers working with Meta have provided a deep dive into the political behavior across Facebook and Instagram. The research, which is the first wave in a series, comes from the 2020 Facebook and Instagram Election Study (FIES), a unique collaboration between Meta and the scientific community. The study aims to explore the extent to which users are exposed to politically aligned content.

The researchers discovered that content posted on Facebook Groups and Pages showed a higher degree of 'ideological segregation' than content shared by friends. These platforms have historically served as major distributors of misinformation and have been instrumental in mobilizing like-minded users around potentially dangerous shared interests. They play a significant role in audience segregation and polarization.

The research also revealed a significant imbalance between liberal and conservative political content. A larger chunk of conservative Facebook news content was identified as false by Meta's third-party fact-checkers. This finding underlines how conservative Facebook users are exposed to more online political misinformation compared to their left-leaning counterparts.

In another experiment, Facebook and Instagram users had their algorithmic feeds replaced with a reverse chronological feed. Interestingly, this didn't change the users' political views, their offline political engagement, or their political knowledge. However, users exposed to the chronological feed spent significantly less time on social media platforms.

The findings, although complex and numerous, lay the groundwork for future research into the role of social media in shaping public opinion and political discourse. Despite Meta's upbeat interpretation of the results, the studies underscore the profound influence social media platforms can have on user behavior and belief systems.