Changing Facebook’s algorithm won’t fix polarization, new study finds

Article by Naomi Nix, Carolyn Y. Johnson, and Cat Zakrzewski: “For years, regulators and activists have worried that social media companies’ algorithms were dividing the United States with politically toxic posts and conspiracies. The concern was so widespread that in 2020, Meta flung open troves of internal data for university academics to study how Facebook and Instagram would affect the upcoming presidential election.

The first results of that research show that the company’s platforms play a critical role in funneling users to partisan information with which they are likely to agree. But the results cast doubt on assumptions that the strategies Meta could use to discourage virality and engagement on its social networks would substantially affect people’s political beliefs.

“Algorithms are extremely influential in terms of what people see on the platform, and in terms of shaping their on-platform experience,” Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University and one of the leaders on the research project, said in an interview.

“Despite the fact that we find this big impact in people’s on-platform experience, we find very little impact in changes to people’s attitudes about politics and even people’s self-reported participation around politics.”

The first four studies, which were released on Thursday in the journals Science and Nature, are the result of a unique partnership between university researchers and Meta’s own analysts to study how social media affects political polarization and people’s understanding and opinions about news, government and democracy. The researchers, who relied on Meta for data and the ability to run experiments, analyzed those issues during the run-up to the 2020 election. The studies were peer-reviewed before publication, a standard procedure in science in which papers are sent out to other experts in the field who assess the work’s merit.

As part of the project, researchers altered the feeds of thousands of people using Facebook and Instagram in fall of 2020 to see if that could change political beliefs, knowledge or polarization by exposing them to different information than they might normally have received. The researchers generally concluded that such changes had little impact.

The collaboration, which is expected to be released over a dozen studies, also will examine data collected after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Tucker said…(More)”.

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