What the Research Says (and Doesn’t Say) About the Impact of Social Media on Democracy and Everyday Life

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A recent article by Jonathan Haidt in Atlantic, titled “Why the Last 10 Years of American Life Have Been Especially Stupid” has garnered a lot of attention. It’s easy to see why just from this title. While Haidt certainly raises valid questions about the impact of social media, the preponderance of research tells a much more nuanced story, and many of these questions lack clear answers.

For example, the evidence simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media in general, is the primary cause of polarization. To research from Stanford last year took an in-depth look at trends in nine countries over 40 years and found that in some countries polarization was on the rise before Facebook even existed, and in others it was down while as internet and Facebook usage increased.

To research showed that polarization increased among demographic groups least likely to use the Internet and social media, suggesting that greater Internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among American demographic groups.

There are also studies showing that the mainstream media plays a bigger role in spreading misinformation than is generally accepted. A Harvard study released just ahead of the 2020 US election found that a campaign to cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting was driven more by elites and through mass media, with the study concluding that “social media played only a secondary and supporting role. He went on to note that solving this problem “will likely require more aggressive policing from mainstream professional media, the Associated Press, television networks and local television news publishers.”

A growing body of research discredits the idea that social media algorithms create an echo chamber that causes polarization and political upheaval. the Reuters Institute noted that people who use online search and social media for their news are “much more likely to see sources they wouldn’t normally use.” And in Are filter bubbles real?, author and teacher Axel Browns Remarks: “[M]Most claims about echo chambers and filter bubbles and their negative impacts on society are vastly exaggerated. These concepts are very suggestive metaphors, but ultimately they are myths.

Haidt’s article states, “Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, the news media, and people and institutions in general.” This is not really what the majority of credible studies show. Nor is it consistent with the shared experiences of anyone from the decades before the rise of social media, where many angry voices were amplified on cable TV, radio, and in the newspapers.

The strength of civic institutions declined long before the invention of social media. One of the founding works on this subject is bowling alone by Robert Putnam and was published in 2000. Trust in institutions has also been in decline for decades, especially in America. Pew’s the index of trust in government, which dates back to the 1960s, clearly shows the trend line. In fact, as the Pew study says, trust in government in the United States has declined since Watergate and shows no signs of accelerating since the invention of social media. The World Values ​​Index also shows how trust varies in different countries even if it is down in the United States.

One of the most recent comprehensive sources of academic literature addressing the issue of the impact of social media on democracy has been published by the Digitization and democracy work group. There was no clear consensus on the role of social media due to the variety of other social factors at play, as one of the members of this working group explained in a compelling speech. Twitter feed.

None of this means that the concerns raised by Haidt aren’t valid, particularly regarding the design of social media contributing to the shrill tone of some online discourse. However, the article also assumes – without sufficient evidence – that social media design alone is the primary driver of social changes such as the collapse of critical thinking and the demise of bipartisanship that we clearly see in political discourse. American.

Social media has given voice to billions of people around the world. It is a technology that is as stimulating as it is disruptive. It even helps many people connect to content on the very issues raised in this article. For example, many people found and read this article in Atlantic via social media.

We need more academic research to better understand the true impact of social media, especially on democracy in America. This is one of the reasons why Meta invests in open search and transparency, including the Election study on Facebook and Instagram, which is an intensive, large-scale collaboration between internal researchers and external academics to understand the impact of our products on key 2020 US election outcomes, including polarization. We also support the URL shares the publication of the dataset and other efforts to study our impact on elections and democracy while protecting the privacy of our users.

We can do more to improve our own platform, based on what the research actually says, to help amplify the good and minimize the bad. And this work continues.

Resources

  • Cross-national trends in affective polarization; Levi Boxell, Stanford University∗ Matthew Gentzkow, Stanford University and NBER Jesse M. Shapiro, Brown University and NBER; August 2021
  • Higher internet use is not associated with faster growth in political polarization among US demographic groups; Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro
  • Mail-in Election Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign; Harvard University – Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Yochai Benkler, Casey Tilton, Bruce Etlingjustin clark, Robert Faris, Jonas Kaiser, Carolyn Schmitt; October 2, 2020
  • Reuters Institute Digital Information Report 2017; Nic Newman with Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David AL Levy and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen;
  • Are filter bubbles real?; Axel Burns, Future Fellow of the Australian Research Council and Professor at the Center for Digital Media Research, Queensland University of Technology; September 2019
  • Public Trust in Government: 1958-2021; The Pew Research Center; May 17, 2021
  • OurWorldInData: “Trust”; Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser; 2016
  • Digitization and democracy; Working group: Prof. Dr.-Ing. Reiner Anderl, Fachgebiet Datenverarbeitung in der Konstruktion, Technische Universität Darmstadt, Prof. Dr. Elisabeth André ML, Institut für Informatik, Universität Augsburg, Prof. Dr. Matthias Bäcker, Öffentliches Recht und Informationsrecht, Datenschutzrecht, Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz Asst.-Prof . Dr. Tobias Dienlin, Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Universität Wien, Prof. Dr. Thorsten Faas, Otto-Suhr Institut für Politikwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin, Prof. Dr. Dirk Helbing ML, Computational Social Science, ETH Zürich, Schweiz (Member until November 2020), Prof. Dr. Andreas Hepp, Zentrum für Medien-, Kommunikations- und Informationsforschung, Universität Bremen, Prof. Dr. Ralph Hertwig ML, Forschungsbereich für Adaptive Rationalität, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Prof. Dr Jeanette Hofmann, Forschungsgruppe Politik der Digitalisierung, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, Prof. Dr. Lisa Herzog, Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics, University of Groningen, Netherlands, Prof. Dr. Frauke Kreuter, Lehrstuhl für Statistik und sozialwissenschaftliche Methodenlehre, Universität Mannheim, Prof. Dr. Jörn Lamla, Fachgebiet Soziologische Theorie, Universität Kassel, Prof. Dr. Thomas Lengauer ML, Max-Planck-Institut für In formatik, Saarbrücken, Prof. Dr. Martina Löw, Institut für Soziologie, Technische Universität Berlin, Prof. Dr. Barbara Pfetsch, Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin, Prof. Dr. Indra Spiecker gen. Döhmann, Lehrstuhl für Öffentliches Recht, Informationsrecht, Umweltrecht, Verwaltungswissenschaft, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Prof. Dr. Michael Zürn, Abteilung Global Governance, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung; 2021
  • Twitter feed by Tobias Dienlin, Media Psychology & Communication | Confidentiality and well-being | Open science and slow science; April 20, 2022
  • New Facebook and Instagram Research Initiative to Examine the 2020 US Presidential Election; Nick Clegg, President and President of Global Business, Meta Platforms, Inc. and Chaya Nayak, Head of Facebook’s Open Research and Transparency Team; August 31, 2020

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