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Difference In Social Media Algorithms Does Not Reduce Political Polarisation, Study Finds

97% of political news sources on Facebook identified as having spread misinformation more popular with conservatives

Four new studies complicate the narrative around abolishing algorithms on Meta Platforms, Inc (NASDAQ: META) Facebook, and Instagram, to prevent misinformation and political division. The research studies from multiple institutions found that removing some algorithm functions had no measurable effects on people’s political beliefs, the New York Times reports.

However, political news consumption on the platforms was highly segregated by ideology, with false news articles drawing more conservative readers during the 2020 election. The research, published in Science and Nature, offers a nuanced understanding of social media’s impact but raises questions about its role in shaping discourse.

In order to shed light on the topic, the researchers analyzed data from millions of Facebook and Instagram users and experimented with the algorithms of those who agreed to take part in the project. The studies are unique as they collaborated with Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram) and included many users, unlike previous research based on publicly available data.

Lawmakers have previously flagged social media algorithm concerns, but the studies highlight the complex nature of social media’s effects with no straightforward solutions. Meta spent $20 million on the research, which has faced criticism for its direct participation in providing data and conducting experiments.

This picture taken in Toulouse, southwestern France, showing a smartphone and a computer screen displaying the logos of the Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and their parent company Meta. Lawmakers have previously flagged social media algorithm concerns, but the studies highlight the complex nature of social media’s effects with no straightforward solutions. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

“We now know just how influential the algorithm is in shaping people’s perceptions on-platform experiences, but we also know that changing the algorithm for even a few months isn’t likely to change people’s political attitudes,” said Talia Stroud of the University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Tucker of New York University, the project’s co-leaders, according to the Engineering and Technology article.

Despite the findings, researchers hope the papers will lead to more comprehensive work in the field, and policymakers may take action to support such research in the future. It is noteworthy that previous research had suggested that Instagram connected pedophiles and guided them to content sellers via recommendation systems. The researchers found that Instagram has enabled people to search explicit hashtags and connect them to accounts that used the terms to advertise child-sex material for sale. 

Reporting on E&T however, the authors did find that 97 per cent of the political news sources on Facebook identified by fact-checkers as having spread misinformation, were more popular with conservatives than liberals. “ Most misinformation, as identified by Meta’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program, exists within this homogeneously conservative corner,” said the study authors.

“These new studies added to a growing body of research showing there is little evidence that key features of Meta’s platforms alone cause harmful ‘affective’ polarization, or have meaningful effects on key political attitudes, beliefs or behaviors,” said Meta’s global affairs president Nick Clegg. 

However, the US non-profit Free Press said Meta was misrepresenting the studies.

“Meta execs are seizing on limited research as evidence that they shouldn’t share blame for increasing political polarization and violence. This calculated spin of these surveys is simply part of an ongoing retreat from liability for the scourge of political disinformation that has spread online and undermined free, fair and safe elections worldwide,” said Nora Benavidez, Free Press’ senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights.

Produced in association with Benzinga

Edited by Eunice Anyango Oyule and Judy J. Rotich

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