Extremism is Unhealthy for our Enterprise and What We’re Doing about it

An article in today’s Washington Post claims that it is not in Facebook’s financial interests to discourage extremism on our platform because research shows indignation makes us more money. The research they cited didn’t even look at extremism. The opinion desk is just wrong.

Polarizing and extremist content is not only bad for society but also for our business. Our business only works when users choose our apps because they have a positive impact on their lives – and advertisers choose to show ads that are relevant to the users they want to reach. Polarizing and extremist content both distribute. It’s one of the reasons we’ve invested in technology to quickly find and remove hate speech and other forms of extremism that violate our rules.

The research cited in the post uses data that reflects only a specific time period, the months leading up to last year’s US election. That was a time when the US was experiencing a historically high degree of polarization and it is unclear whether these results would carry over to other time periods and other nations. It’s also important to note that political content is only a small snippet of all social media content – it accounts for only 6% of what people saw on our services during the peak of the electoral cycle last year. It is reasonable to assume that the number is even lower today.

The piece also paints an overly simple – and limited – picture of the extensive research on polarization and the role that Twitter and Facebook play in it so far. For example, research from Stanford University in 2020 showed that polarization increased in some countries before Facebook even existed and decreased in others as internet and Facebook usage increased.

research The study, published earlier this year by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the best explanation for the extent of polarization in nine countries studied is the specific conditions in each country, as opposed to general trends such as increased internet usage. A Study 2017 The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published in the United States, found that polarization in the United States has increased most among demographics with the least internet and social media use. And givesta The document released from the EU in 2019 suggests that the level of ideological polarization is similar whether you get your news from social media or elsewhere. One current paper even showed that ceasing to use social media actually increases polarization.

However, none of these studies give a definitive answer to the question of what role social media plays in polarization. The questions of what is driving polarization in our society – and how best to reduce it – are complex. Much more research is clearly needed. That is why we not only commissioned our own research on this topic, but also asked renowned scientists, including some of our critics, to carry out their own research independently of us.

For example, we made up our minds a new research partnership with outside academics to explore the impact of Facebook and Instagram on key political attitudes and behaviors during the US elections 2020 2020, building on one Initiative that we started in 2018. It examines the impact of people’s interaction with our products, including the content shared on news feeds and Instagram, and the role of features such as content ranking systems. Matthew Gentzkow, who previously authored a study on how Facebook increased affective polarization, is one of the contributors.

But there is another important point missing from the Washington Post analysis. That is the fact that all social media platforms, including but not limited to ours, reflect what is happening in society and what is preoccupying people at any given time. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, for example, posts on football will of course increase – not because we programmed our algorithms to show people content about football, but because people think of it. And just like politics, soccer hits a deep emotional nerve in people. How they react – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will be reflected on social media.

It’s helpful to see Facebook’s role in the 2020 election from a similar angle. Last year’s elections were perhaps the most emotional and competitive in American history. Politics was everywhere in our society last year – in bars and cafes (at least before the pandemic lockdowns), on cable news, at family gatherings, and yes, on social media too. And of course some of these discussions were emotional and polarizing because our politics are emotional and polarizing. It would be strange if some of this wasn’t reflected on social media.

But we also have to be very clear that extremist content is not fundamental to our business model. This is counterproductive, as the advertising boycott Stop Hate for Profit showed last year. What drives polarization deserves further investigation. It is for this very reason that we are partnering with the most respected scientists in the world to seriously study this topic so that we can take the right steps to address it.

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