, ,

Exclusive access offers new Facebook insights, but UW-Madison professor worries about limits

First set of findings shows limited effects on polarization after changes to Facebook’s algorithms

A photo of a phone screen showing the app icons for Facebook and Instagram
Mobile phone application logos for Facebook and Instagram in 2021. A team of some of the world’s leading social media researchers has published four studies looking at the relationship between the algorithms used by Facebook and Instagram and America’s widening political divide. Richard Drew/AP Photo

While a recent batch of studies downplays Facebook’s influence on political polarization, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor warns against placing too much confidence in the findings based on the research’s unusual methods.

Journalism professor Mike Wagner audited the studies that granted academic researchers around the nation access to Facebook’s internal records. The studies were produced in partnership with social scientists at Meta, the company that owns Facebook.

A headshot photo of Michael Wagner
Michael Wagner. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Wagner said the studies provide useful information about the 2020 elections and Facebook’s effects on political polarization. However, he urged skepticism because the researchers never had unfettered access to Facebook’s internal records.

“The outside academics wanted access to data they could only get if they partnered with Meta to do the work. So, they had to make some compromises,” Wagner said recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time.”

Seventeen academic researchers partnered with Meta social scientists to conduct a variety of studies. So far, several researchers have published their findings.

In one study of users who consented to be part of the research, the ordering of posts on Facebook was changed to emphasize the most recent posts by their friends. Wagner said the change didn’t affect users’ attitudes on various political topics, their views of political opposites or their knowledge of politics.

The researchers also examined the effect of removing posts re-shared by other users. Wagner said this change appeared to reduce news knowledge but not affect political polarization.

Silhouettes stand in front of a Meta sign
Attendees visit the Meta booth at the Game Developers Conference 2023 in San Francisco. Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Contrary to the findings, Wagner said evidence in a lot of other research supports that social media amplifies polarization, including for particular groups of people.

While calling the new Facebook studies “rigorous, carefully checked, transparent, ethical, and path-breaking,” Wagner said he worries about the limits that were placed on the independence of academic researchers.

“Some research findings they (Meta) are going to want to promote, and some they are not,” he said.

Related Stories