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Meta research on Facebook and Instagram’s impact

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Nearly three years ago, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) announced a collaboration with a group of independent researchers to investigate the influence of its platforms, Facebook and Instagram, on the 2020 presidential election.

The joint project aimed to provide an impartial examination of issues such as polarization and misinformation by utilizing extensive internal data.

Recently, the research’s initial findings have been published in four peer-reviewed papers in the prestigious journals Science and Nature. These studies offer a compelling and novel perspective on how Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms influenced user experiences in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

For Meta, these papers mark a significant milestone, considering the company’s sometimes strained relationship with independent researchers and prior criticism for limited transparency in data sharing. Nick Clegg, Meta’s policy chief, highlighted that the research suggests Facebook might not wield as much influence in shaping users’ political beliefs as commonly believed.

He stated, “The experimental studies add 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.” However, the initial research findings present a more intricate perspective.

One of the studies published in Nature focused on the concept of “echo chambers,” where users are exposed to a significant amount of content from “like-minded” sources. While the researchers confirmed that most U.S. users indeed see a majority of content from such sources, they noted that not all of it is explicitly political or news-related. Interestingly, reducing the exposure to “like-minded” content led to decreased engagement but did not significantly alter users’ beliefs or attitudes.

It is important to acknowledge that the study’s results do not account for the potential “cumulative effects” of several years of social media use on the participants. Nonetheless, the research indicates that echo chambers might be misunderstood and their effects overstated.

Another study in Nature explored the impact of chronological feeds compared to algorithmically generated ones. This issue gained prominence in 2021, following revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who advocated for a return to chronological feeds. Notably, the research revealed that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithmic feeds had a strong influence on users’ experiences.

The Chronological Feed notably decreased the time users spent on the Meta platform, reduced their engagement with content and altered the mix of content they were exposed to. Users saw more content from ideologically moderate friends and sources with mixed audiences, along with increased political content and content from untrustworthy sources.

On the other hand, the Meta Algorithmic Feed did not result in detectable changes in downstream political attitudes, knowledge, or offline behavior.

Similarly, another study published in Science examined the effects of reshared content during the 2020 election. Removing reshared content substantially reduced the presence of political news, including content from untrustworthy sources, but did not significantly impact political polarization or individual-level political attitudes.

Lastly, researchers analyzed the political news stories that appeared in users’ feeds, considering their ideological leanings. They found that Facebook exhibits substantial ideological segregation, particularly in content posted by Pages and Groups, rather than content posted by friends.

Conservative users were more likely to encounter content from “untrustworthy” sources and articles rated false by third-party fact-checkers, which the researchers attributed to the powerful curation and dissemination capabilities of Pages and Groups with predominantly conservative audiences.

While some findings are favorable to Meta, which argues that political content constitutes a small portion of most users’ experiences, one of the most notable takeaways from the research is that there are no straightforward solutions to address the polarization prevalent on social media platforms.

As David Garcia from the University of Konstanz, part of the research team, stated, “The results of these experiments do not show that the platforms are not the problem, but they show that they are not the solution.”

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