Random Image Display on Page Reload

Meta’s Election Research Opens More Questions Than It Answers

Jul 27, 2023 1:59 PM

Meta’s Election Research Opens More Questions Than It Answers

Researchers were given unprecedented access to Meta’s data during the 2020 elections. Meta says their results show its platforms don’t cause political polarization. That’s not entirely true.

A person using a voting booth in a gymnasium

Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Meta set out to conduct a series of ambitious studies on the effects its platforms—Facebook and Instagram—have on the political beliefs of US-based users. Independent researchers from several universities were given unprecedented access to Meta’s data, and the power to change the feeds of tens of thousands of people in order to observe their behavior.

The researchers weren’t paid by Meta, but the company seemed pleased with the results, which were released today in four papers in Nature and Science. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said in a statement that “the experimental findings 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” political views and behavior.

It’s a sweeping conclusion. But the studies are actually much narrower. Even though researchers were given more insight into Meta’s platforms than ever before—for many years, Meta considered such data too sensitive to make public—the studies released today leave open as many questions as they answer.

The studies focused on a specific period in the three months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. And while Andrew Guess, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton and one of the researchers whose findings appear in Science, noted that this is longer than most researchers get, it’s not long enough to be entirely representative of a user’s experience on the platform.

“We don’t know what would have happened had we been able to do these studies over a period of a year or two years,” Guess said at a press briefing earlier this week. More importantly, he said, there is no accounting for the fact that many users have had Facebook and Instagram accounts for upwards of a decade now. “This finding cannot tell us what the world would have been like if we hadn’t had social media around for the last 10 to 15 years or 15 or 20 years.”

There’s also the issue of the specific time frame the researchers were able to study—the run-up to an election in an atmosphere of intense political polarization.

Most Popular

“I think there are unanswered questions about whether these effects would hold outside of the election environment, whether they would hold in an election where Donald Trump wasn’t one of the candidates,” says Michael Wagner, a professor of journalism and communication at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who helped oversee Meta’s 2020 election project.

Meta’s Clegg also said that the research challenges “the now commonplace assertion that the ability to reshare content on social media drives polarization.”

Researchers weren’t quite so unequivocal. One of the studies published in Science found that resharing elevates “content from untrustworthy sources.” The same study showed that most of the misinformation caught by the platform’s third-party fact checkers is concentrated amongst and exclusively consumed by conservative users, which has no equivalent on the opposite side of the political aisle, according to an analysis of about 208 million users.

Another study found that while participants whose feeds excluded reshared content did end up consuming less partisan news, they also ended up less well informed in general. “We often see that polarization and knowledge kind of move together,” says Guess. “So you can make people more knowledgeable about politics, but then you’ll see an increase in polarization among the same set of people.”

“I don’t think the findings suggest that Facebook isn’t contributing to polarization,” says Wagner. “I think that the findings demonstrate that in 2020, Facebook wasn’t the only or dominant cause of polarization, but people were polarized long before they logged on to Facebook in 2020.”

The studies released today represent just the first tranche of research. Thirteen more papers are expected over the coming months that will focus on topics that include the impact of political advertisements and attitudes toward political violence around the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Meta spokesperson Corey Chambliss told WIRED that the company does not have plans to allow similar research in 2024. When asked about whether Meta would be funding further research, Chambliss pointed to the company’s newly announced research tools, particularly the Meta Content Library and API. “The library includes data from public posts, pages, groups, and events on Facebook,” he says. “For Instagram, it will include public posts and data from creator and business accounts. Data from the library can be searched, explored, and filtered on a graphical user interface or through a programmatic API.”

Notably, the newly published studies did not investigate ways to specifically depolarize users. As a result, researchers say that while there are reasons to be concerned about social media’s impact on politics, it’s not any clearer what policy solutions could address the issue.

“It would have been nice for the public, for lawmakers, for regulators, and for social science to have a better idea of what kind of interventions might make things better,” says Wagner.

Get More From WIRED

Vittoria Elliott is a reporter for WIRED, covering platforms and power. She was previously a reporter at Rest of World, where she covered disinformation and labor in markets outside the US and Western Europe. She has worked with The New Humanitarian, Al Jazeera, and ProPublica. She is a graduate of… Read more
Platforms and power reporter

Paresh Dave is a senior writer for WIRED, covering the inner workings of big tech companies. He writes about how apps and gadgets are built and about their impacts, while giving voice to the stories of the underappreciated and disadvantaged. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times,… Read more
More from WIRED

Meta Just Proved People Hate Chronological Feeds

Some social media users and lawmakers say chronological feeds are healthier. A new study found that Facebook and Instagram users who were forced to see time-ranked posts turned to TikTok instead.

Paresh Dave

6 Threads App Settings Worth Trying Out

From muting accounts to scheduling break reminders, here’s how to get the most out of Meta’s recent social media app.

Reece Rogers

How Threads’ Privacy Policy Compares to Twitter’s (and Its Rivals’)

Want to try out Meta’s new social media app? Here’s more context on what personal data is collected by Threads and similar social media apps.

Reece Rogers

How Threads Could Kill Twitter

Meta’s microblogging app is intuitive, has already been downloaded by millions of people, and has other advantages over Twitter’s would-be rivals.

Amanda Hoover

Don't Join Threads—Make Threads Join You

Meta’s Twitter alternative promises that it will work with decentralized platforms, giving you greater control of your data. You can hold the company to that—if you don't sign up.

Lily Hay Newman

It’s Getting Harder for the Government to Secretly Flag Your Social Posts

Social apps prioritize content moderation tips from governments and online watchdogs. A US court ruling and a new EU law could restrict the practice, but they still leave loopholes.

Paresh Dave

Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Don’t Fight Elon Musk in the Las Vegas Octagon

Meta’s CEO would do us all a favor by not taking on Elon Musk in a literal cage fight. Especially since he’s already got Musk beat.

Steven Levy

Meta’s Threads Could Make—or Break—the Fediverse

Meta promised to make Threads compatible with the decentralized protocol underlying Mastodon. Proponents of interoperable social media can’t agree whether to welcome or fear it.

Gregory Barber

Credit belongs to : www.wired.com

Check Also

Welcome to the Age of Technofeudalism

By Morgan Meaker Business Apr 9, 2024 2:00 AM Welcome to the Age of Technofeudalism …