An investigation into political behaviour on Facebook and Instagram, two significant online hubs where people express and interact with their political opinions, is provided by new research that was released on Thursday.
A multidisciplinary team of researchers worked with internal Meta groups to conduct the research, which resulted in four publications in Science and Nature. The papers examine behaviour on both platforms around the 2020 presidential election.
The papers came from the 2020 Facebook and Instagram Election Study (FIES), an uncommon collaboration between Meta and the scientific research community. These are only a few publications that will be published in the upcoming months.
Talia Jomini Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas Centre for Media Engagement, and Joshua A. Tucker, a professor at New York University and co-director of the school’s Centre for Social Media and Politics, were the intellectual leaders behind the project.
The results are numerous and intricate.
Researchers wanted to see how much Facebook users were exposed to solely political content when they used the platform, so they conducted a study on Facebook’s ideological echo chambers.
Our data show that Facebook is significantly more politically divided as a social and informational setting—far more so than earlier studies on online news consumption based on browsing behavior, the researchers said.
The data revealed at least two extremely intriguing and specific discoveries. First, the content posted in Facebook Groups and Pages showed far higher “ideological segregation” than content uploaded by users’ friends, according to the researchers. The study concluded that “Pages and Groups contribute much more to segregation and audience polarisation than users.”
That may seem obvious, but Groups and Pages have historically played a significant role in spreading false information and encouraging like-minded users to unite around risky shared interests, such as QAnon, anti-government militias (like the Proud Boys, who relied on Facebook for recruitment), and potentially fatal health conspiracies.
Experts on misinformation and extremism have long expressed concern about the two Facebook products’ contribution to political polarisation and the spread of conspiracy theories.
The researchers stated, “Our results uncover the influence that two key Facebook affordances—Pages and Groups—have in shaping the online information environment.” “Pages and Groups benefit from the straightforward reuse of content from reputable political news producers and provide a curation mechanism by which ideologically consistent content from a wide range of sources can be redistributed.”
That investigation also discovered significant asymmetries between liberal and conservative political content on Facebook. According to the researchers, Conservative Facebook users are exposed to much more online political misinformation than their left-leaning counterparts, who discovered that a “far larger” share of conservative Facebook news content was found to be false by Meta’s third-party fact-checking system.
The researchers concluded that “… the audiences of misinformation shared by Pages and Groups are more homogeneous and completely concentrated on the right.”
Reverse chronological feeds were substituted for algorithmic feeds on Facebook and Instagram in a different experiment with Meta’s assistance. This was frequently the rallying cry of individuals tired of social media’s unending scrolling and addictive features.
The users’ opinions of politics, their offline political engagement, or their level of political knowledge remained relatively the same due to the encounter.
There was one significant change for users who received the reverse chronological feed in that experiment. According to the authors, “we found that users in the Chronological Feed group spent dramatically less time on Facebook and Instagram,” highlighting how Meta boosts engagement by mingling content in an algorithmic jumble, supporting compulsive behavioral habits.
These results represent a sample of the work presented in subsequent papers. The results of the new investigations have been presented by Meta as a victory, flattening complex data into what is effectively a publicity gimmick.