Tweaking Facebook’s Algorithm Won’t Fix Political Polarization
Sunday, July 30th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Facebook and political polarization.
Announcement: The Bagel is pivoting! Well, semi-pivoting; we’re dropping the news and completely dedicating the newsletter to new research.
Things will look roughly the same, with the only tweak being “News Bites” and “Proofed Research” will be combined into “Quick Bites” (shoutout to the early Bagelers who remember Quick Bites!).
Some exciting stuff is also on the horizon! So stay tuned. Thanks for reading and have a great Sunday!
KNEAD TO KNOW
New data from the World Meteorological Organization and the E.U.-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service shows July is on track to be the hottest month ever recorded. The first three weeks of the month is already the warmest three-week period on record, according to the data released this week. “We don’t have to wait for the end of the month to know this. Short of a mini-Ice Age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
A new report by scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative found this month’s record heat events in the U.S.-Mexico region and Southern Europe would be “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. The report found human activities have made heat waves like the ones currently hammering North America, Europe, and China much less rare, estimating such events will now occur once every 15 years in the U.S-Mexico region, once every 10 years in Southern Europe, and once every 5 years in China.
A new study by researchers at Yale University found excess mortality among Republican voters in Florida and Ohio was “significantly higher” than among Democratic voters after COVID vaccines became widely available. The study examined 538,000 deaths in Florida and Ohio from March 2020 to December 2021, finding the mortality rate among Republicans was 43% higher than among Democrats after May 1, 2021, when COVID vaccines were available to all adults. The researchers say the “results suggest that well-documented differences in vaccination attitudes and reported uptake between Republican and Democratic voters may have been factors in the severity and trajectory of the pandemic.”
A new survey by the Pew Research Center found Americans believe China is the country posing the greatest threat to the U.S., followed by Russia, North Korea, and the U.S. itself. The survey posed an open-ended question allowing respondents to name the country they see as the greatest threat to the U.S., finding half of Americans named China (50%), almost three times the share who named Russia (17%). No other country apart from China, Russia, North Korea (2%), or the U.S. (2%) itself was named by respondents.
Tweaking Facebook’s Algorithm Won’t Fix Political Polarization
Lawmakers, activists, and regulators have spent years questioning whether social media drives political polarization. New studies out this week paint a surprising picture, though the work comes with several important limitations.
So, what does the research say about Facebook’s role in driving political polarization? And, if it’s minimal, does that mean social media companies are innocent of contributing to today’s political division?
“Was my annoying relative radicalized by Facebook?”
It’s a question far too many of us have had to ask ourselves in recent years (myself included). It’s easy to believe it’s true, as lawmakers and activists have been after social networks for a number of years, and those of us with said annoying relatives know they aren’t afraid of sharing that they get their “news” from bizarre Facebook groups.
Proponents of regulating social media content fear the consequences of the political and civic division being sowed on the platforms, where purveyors of conspiracies and toxic content find a home among eager admirers.
It’s also a fairly logical view: Toxic, conspiratorial content spreads on social media, consumers of that content adopt the views and share the toxicity with their personal contacts, who likewise adopt the views and share the content with their networks. It’s a vicious cycle that understandably strikes fear into the heart of anyone who cares about the havoc misinformation has wreaked on American society.
The common proposals by those who want less of the toxicity is to regulate social networks and change their algorithms, which proponents of regulation often pit as the true culprit. The belief is that algorithms amplifying certain content is what drives the depravity, thus the way to cure the problem is by fixing it at the root.
But is that true? Do platforms like Facebook and Instagram actually drive political polarization? Or do people seek out content that aligns with their beliefs?
What the research says:
Four new studies – published in Science and Nature – by a group of 17 researchers from the University of Texas, New York University, Princeton University, and other institutions, suggest reducing political polarization on social networks isn’t as simple as tweaking algorithms or limiting certain types of content. The studies also reveal the scope of echo chambers on Facebook, where users with divergent political views flock to different sources of information, with notably different amounts of misinformation.
The researchers gained unprecedented access to Facebook and Instagram data around the 2020 election through a collaboration with Meta, which owns both platforms. The researchers say they weren’t paid by Meta and had the final say over the content of the four studies.
In one study, the researchers limited Facebook users’ ability to see posts that were reshared by people in their networks for three months (from September to December 2020), finding users were subsequently exposed to far less political news, engaged with less content overall, and experienced a decline in news knowledge. However, post-experiment surveys of respondents found their levels of political polarization and political attitudes were unchanged.
In another study, the team reduced the number of posts users saw from “like-minded sources” (i.e., people with similar political leanings) by about one-third, finding the reduction increased the amount of content users saw from ideologically opposed views. Still, post-intervention surveys found “no measurable effect on a range of political attitudes,” including polarization, ideological extremity, and opinions on issues.
In a third study, the researchers presented users’ Instagram and Facebook feeds in reverse chronological order, rather than in the order decided by the platforms’ algorithms, removing Meta’s curation from the process entirely. The team found users with chronological feeds spent significantly less time on the platforms than those with curated feeds, suggesting chronological feeds are less engaging. Users with chronological feeds also saw more political stories and content from sources deemed untrustworthy.
Critics of Facebook’s curation have said the company’s algorithms amplify divisive content, believing chronological feeds could be a solution to the platforms’ polarization. Despite that belief, surveys given to users who received the chronological feeds again found little impact on their levels of political polarization, political knowledge, or offline political behaviors.
In perhaps the most striking study, the researchers analyzed aggregated data of 208 million U.S. Facebook users, comparing the “ideological segregation” of political news consumption on the platform.
González Bailón et al., 2023
The study found news consumption on Facebook is highly segregated, with a “substantial” amount of the news ecosystem on the platform consumed exclusively by conservative audiences. The study also found most domains deemed “untrustworthy” were favored by right-leaners, and an eye-opening 97% of the news stories rated as false by third-party fact-checkers had audiences that were conservative on average.
Why it matters:
Taken together, the studies suggest Facebook and Instagram users seek out information that aligns with their views, and the algorithms help by making it easier for users to find the type of content they’re inclined to consume.
Does that mean your annoying relative wasn’t radicalized by Facebook groups and social networks are innocent of any contribution to our state of political division? Obviously not.
When it comes to Meta’s products, while the company has made several changes (including a shift away from news content altogether), misinformation and disinformation is still prevalent on the platforms. Not to mention whatever Elon Musk is doing with Twitter (or “X”, I guess we have to say now).
The researchers involved in the four studies themselves caution against taking the results of their work too far, since it has clear limitations.
First, the researchers were at Meta’s mercy when it came to sharing the data. Meta paid for the data collection and handling, and reserved the right to veto any data request that it believed violated users’ privacy.
Second, the project wasn’t actually designed to tell us what would have happened had social media regulations been in place during past election cycles, only what happened ahead of and during the 2020 election. The findings may even be outdated, as Meta has since implemented a variety of changes.
“It’s possible that if we did a similar study at another period of time or in another country where people were not paying as much attention to politics or not being as inundated with other information from other sources about politics, we would have found a different result,” said Joshua Tucker, one of the leaders on the project.
Finally, as Michael Wagner, a social scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out in an accompanying commentary, this isn’t how this type of research should be done, since Meta retained control over what information it shared. At the same time, there isn’t any true alternative setup, since the data is held by social media companies and it’s up to them whether to share it or not.
The researchers nonetheless hope their findings encourage more work in the field, and more collaborations between social media companies and academics in the future. The team has 12 more studies coming in this project alone.
“We very much hope that society, through its policymakers, will take action so this kind of research can continue in the future,” said Tucker. This should be something that society sees in its interest.”
The World Consumer Class Could Grow to 5 Billion People by 2031
A new analysis by researchers at the Brookings Institution shows the world’s consumer class will grow to 5 billion people by 2031, up from 4 billion today, with 113 million consumers expected to be added in 2024. The researchers believe the world has reached a “tipping point,” as more than half of the global population is now in the consumer class.
The World Data Lab defines the consumer class as those who spend at least $12 per day (measured in 2017 purchasing power parity). Each year, around 110 million to 130 million people join the consumer class globally.
Asia will contribute around 81% of the world’s new consumers in 2024, led by India (33 million new consumers added) and China (31 million). Next year is expected to be the first time India will outpace China in the number of new consumers added, underscoring India’s status as a leading global driver of consumer growth.
Eight Healthy Habits Could Lengthen Your Life By Decades
A new study by researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs found people who adopt eight particular healthy habits by middle age can expect to live decades longer than people with few or none of the habits. The eight habits are: being physically active, being free from opioid addiction, not smoking, managing stress, having a good diet, not regularly binge drinking, having good sleep hygiene, and having positive social relationships.
The study examined the lifestyle behaviors of nearly 720,000 U.S. veterans, finding men who adopt all eight habits by middle age can live an average of 24 years longer than men with none of the habits. Adding just one of the behaviors added 4.5 years to a man’s life.
Women with all eight habits can live another 21 years compared to women with none, and adopting a single habit can add 3.5 years to a woman’s life. Adjusting for various factors, the study found an 87% relative reduction in all-cause mortality for people who adopted all eight habits compared to those who adopted none.
European Space Agency
Scientists May Have Solved the Sun’s Greatest Mystery
A new study led by researchers at the Royal Observatory of Belgium may answer one of astronomy’s long-standing mysteries: why is the Sun’s atmosphere hotter than its surface? Using observations made by the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft, the team found small, high-frequency magnetic waves on the surface may be producing so much energy that they heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
Scientists have spent decades trying to understand why the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, reaches temperatures of over 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit while the surface stays at around 10,000 degrees F. Since the corona is farther away from the Sun’s heat source (i.e., its core), the outer atmosphere, in theory, should be cooler.
“Over the past 80 years, astrophysicists have tried to solve this problem and now more and more evidence is emerging that the corona can be heated by magnetic waves,” said study author Tom Van Doorsselaere.
184 million - The number of people in the U.S. under heat advisories on Friday (around 55% of the national population), according to the National Weather Service. The advisories included areas on the Eastern Seaboard, in the Desert Southwest, and parts of southern states, where heat indexes, a measure of how hot it feels factoring in humidity, reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
1.3 billion - The estimated number of people worldwide who will be living with diabetes by 2050, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington. The study included more than 27,000 data sources for 204 countries and territories from 1990 to 2021, finding every country in the analysis is expected to experience an increase in diabetes cases by 2050.
1,500 - The number of coral species researchers at the University of South Florida transported this week to onshore tanks at its Keys Marine Laboratory as “unprecedented heat waves and escalating water temperatures in South Florida create a massive coral bleaching event.” On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its highest level of coral bleaching alert for the region.
Long Video. Why are Americans obsessed with big cars? (11 min)
Short Video. Learn how to spot pseudoscience and how it differs from actual science. (6 min)
Fun Video. Here’s how McDonald’s comes up with its country-exclusive menu items. (6 min)
Good Read. The history of how the U.S. almost became a hippo-ranching nation. (1,752 words; 9 min)
Neat List. These are the 11 most common subjects of nightmares, according to science.
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Written by Ryan Wittler