Research published by Science reveals ideological “echo chambers” on social media
Facebook (Meta) has transformed how we get news and information. But is it dividing us politically?
According to self-proclaims by Meta Inc., over two billion users and counting – or better profiles, including probably a half of fakes, duplicated, bots, scammers, deads, banned… For sure, Facebook is the largest social media network worldwide. Considering the average type of current user – a boomer functional illiterate easy catch for propaganda machines of any kind – the network founded and still owned by the Jewish-American Mark Zuckerberg greatly impacts election results worldwide.
The new anti-Twitter – or better, anti-X – network, Threads, has been a huge flop – 100 million users the first week after launch, and over 50% lost the week after. Two records – despite technically they’re not new users but rather existing users of another network, Instagram, that activated the Threads extension.
A pool of 27 independent researchers analyzed Facebook data for 208 million U.S. users during the 2020 election. They examined the full universe of news stories people could see in their feeds. Then they compared this to the narrowed selection of stories Facebook’s algorithm showed them.
Facebook contributes overwhelmingly to the ideological segregation of society
The researchers found high levels of “ideological segregation” on Facebook. Conservatives tended to see news catering to their views. The same for liberals. This segregation grew stronger as stories moved from potential exposure to actual exposure.
There was also striking asymmetry between left and right. A sizable segment of conservative news was isolated and consumed only by right-leaning audiences. No equivalent bubble existed on the left.
The researchers also looked at misinformation – stories flagged as false by Facebook’s fact-checkers. Nearly all these bogus stories resided in the uniquely conservative bubble.
In other words, conservatives on Facebook inhabit an alternate media universe to a greater extent than liberals. Their feeds promote partisan news – and sometimes fake news – more aggressively.
Political polarisation taken to extremes by a cynical algorithm
To understand these findings, we need to grasp how news reaches Facebook users:
- The underlying network matters. Who you friend, follow and join shapes your potential exposure.
- Facebook’s algorithm then filters this network based on your interests. It elevates certain stories into your actual feed.
- You engage with some stories by reacting, commenting, and sharing. This signals Facebook what you like, driving the algorithm further.
Two other insights emerged:
- Pages and groups drive segregation more than friends. This suggests ideology plays a bigger role in choosing to follow pages/groups versus individuals.
- High-political interest users see twice as much segregation as low-interest users. They opt more into partisan echo chambers.
Tell me who you follow, and I will tell you who you vote for…ever
Past research using web browsing data found limited “filter bubbles” online. But this study suggests social media enables far more segregation in news consumption.
Browsing websites like “Fox News” can miss important differences in the specific stories users see. Granular data on news articles – not just outlets – is key.
The findings also underscore the asymmetric polarization of America’s media ecosystem. Conservative media nurtures a more cloistered audience than liberal media. On platforms like Facebook, this asymmetry gets amplified algorithmically.
Social media expands our information horizons. But the factions we prefer to follow can consolidate our prejudices and bias. Facebook’s algorithms cater to those biases, potentially fueling political tribalism.
Hordes of suckers feast daily on media bullshit, whatever the political party, and then share it with their peers, reinforcing its supposed importance. However, it’s worth reminding that popularity doesn’t imply validity.
The research published by Science highlights the need for transparency from tech platforms. And for society to thoughtfully navigate the internet’s risks and rewards. Facebook alone won’t fix political divides, but understanding its impact is crucial.