A number of recent research reports investigate the impact social media has on mental health, social well-being – and political polarization.

One study, supported by Meta, involved collaboration with a number of US universities to examine the impact of social media – specifically Facebook and Instagram – in shaping political attitudes.

As reported in Nature, the researchers were given significant access to Meta’s data in advance of the 2020 US election, and, for over 23,000 consenting users on Facebook and 21,000 users on Instagram, affected their “echo chambers” by reducing their exposure to content from like-minded sources. They found that this:

…  had no measurable effects on eight preregistered attitudinal measures such as affective polarization, ideological extremity, candidate evaluations and belief in false claims. These precisely estimated results suggest that although exposure to content from like-minded sources on social media is common, reducing its prevalence during the 2020 US presidential election did not correspondingly reduce polarization in beliefs or attitudes.

One of the surprise research findings was that moving users out of the algorithmic feeds and reducing “reshares” actually increased the “political and untrustworthy content” they saw, and these users displayed “marked reductions in accurate news knowledge”. At the same time, it also decreased “uncivil and hateful content” and increased content from “ideologically mixed” audiences, according to the Princeton researcher involved.

“’This implies that reshares make people more knowledgeable,’ said Guess, ‘which may seem counterintuitive since potentially viral reshared content is thought to promote misinformation — and, in fact, we present evidence that it does to some extent. But more reshared content is actually from trustworthy than untrustworthy sources, so on net people are more informed.’”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the research was prominently shared by Meta itself to counter claims that its platforms “cause harmful ‘affective’ polarization’ or have meaningful effects on key political attitudes, beliefs or behaviours.”

As important as this research might be, it is still only one aspect of the tsunami of change in how we consume news, and the potential quality of news that is available. In a different study conducted in 2022, two political scientists paid a group of regular Fox News viewers to watch CNN instead for a month. The results surprised them: “some of the Fox News watchers had changed their minds on a range of key issues including the US response to coronavirus and Democrats’ attitude to police.” As The Guardian article on the study stated,  “The findings suggest that political perspectives can be changed – but also reveals the influence partisan media has on viewers’ ideology.”

In a highly complex news and information landscape that blends different platforms, sources, and social networking, the causes and effects of political polarization remain likewise complex and unclear. Yet the tried and tested principles of responsible journalism remain at the core of an informed society.

Perhaps the learning here is –call out uncivil and hateful content and keep resharing the news you trust.

Photo: Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock