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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beyond Facebook’s Impact on Political Polarization in the U.S.

Any time “scientists” at a company purport to have done a study involving said company in any way, the public has good reason to be suspicious of the reported conclusions. Were the folks running the company really intent on providing credible information, they would use independent scholars (i.e., not being compensated by the company). Such a management would want to obviate even the appearance of a conflict of interest—their desire to provide the public with an answer being so strong. So the management at Facebook may not have been very invested in providing the public an answer to the question: how much influence do users actually have over the content in their feeds? In May 2015, three “Facebook data scientists” published a peer-reviewed study in Science Magazine on how often Facebook users had been “exposed to political views different from their own.”[1] The “scientists” concluded that if users “mostly see news and updates from friends who support their own political ideology, it’s primarily because of their own choices—not the company’s algorithm.”[2] Academic scholars criticized the study’s methodology and cautioned that the risk of polarized “echo chambers” on Facebook was nonetheless significant.[3] I was in academia long enough to know that methodological criticism by more than one scholar is enough to put an empirical study’s findings in doubt. Nowadays, I am more oriented to the broader implications of the “echo-chamber” criticism.

The entire essay is at “Beyond Facebook’s Impact.”




[i] Alexander B. Howard, “Facebook Study Says Users Control What They See, But Critics Disagree,” The Huffington Post, May 12, 2015.
[ii] Ibid. I put the quotes around “scientists” to make the point that the conflict of interest renders the label itself controversial in being applied to the study’s investigators.
[iii] See, for example, Christian Sandvig, “The Facebook ‘It’s Not Our Fault’ Study,” Multicast, Harvard Law School Blogs, May 7, 2015.