In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, McIntire Professors Steven Johnson, Brent Kitchens, and Peter Gray shared their insights concerning the algorithms of social media platforms, and specifically, the impact of Facebook’s right-wing “echo chamber,” which directs users toward consuming content promoting more extreme views.
Based on the activity of nearly 200,000 U.S. internet users on social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter) and online news sites over the course of four years, the faculty team’s research found that while both Facebook and Reddit connect users with a more diverse range of news sources than they would typically visit on their own, Facebook and Reddit differ greatly in how they influence news consumption for conservative users.
Referencing their research data in The Washington Post opinion piece, the Commerce School faculty recounted the trends of typical conservative users, noting that during months when they visited Facebook more than usual, they read news with a roughly 30% more conservative viewpoint than the online news they would read normally. As a contrast, the same group using Reddit more than usual would “read news that was far less conservative—about 50 percent more moderate than what they typically read.”
Johnson, Kitchens, and Gray continue to detail how the polarized news sites of Facebook, versus the politically moderate choices offered by Reddit, are likely the result of contrasting algorithms and three ways they differ in their functionality: “how they consider social networks, topical interests and engagement history.”
The faculty then explain how the impact of each platform is a direct outcome of that platform’s designers, which in Facebook’s case, is contributing to creating a right-wing echo chamber due to the algorithm’s intent on maximizing user engagement.
In light of the implications of how this type of information can influence users, and by extension, how those users chose to vote in the 2020 election, as well as the Oct. 28 Senate Commerce Committee and Nov. 17 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the op-ed and the faculty have received a good deal of attention from a variety of news outlets.
While the full findings of the Commerce faculty will be published in a forthcoming MIS Quarterly article, “Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption,” Johnson, Kitchens, and Gray’s full op-ed is currently available in The Washington Post here.