The deactivation of Facebook for just a few weeks reduces belief in political hoaxes | Technology


Before the 2020 US presidential election, more than 35,000 Facebook and Instagram users agreed to participate in an experiment. 27% of that randomly chosen group received a payment to deactivate their accounts for six weeks. The rest were going to disconnect for only a week. The objective was to check the results of disappearing from two of the main networks in the busiest weeks in politics every four years. The result is that hardly anything happens. Except for one detail: the group disconnected from Facebook (not Instagram) tended to not believe the hoaxes that were circulating. On the other hand, their political participation, especially online, also decreased.

The new article, published today in the magazine PNAS, It is the work of more than 30 academics from US universities and Meta researchers. It belongs to the macro study whose publication began last summer in magazines Science and Nature and that found that conservatives consume more misinformation on Facebook, among other results. The project born from an agreement of August 2020 between Meta and two professors, who then selected the rest of the researchers.

One of the authors of the article, Stanford University professor Matthew Gentzkow, sees two main findings at work: “First, stopping using Facebook and Instagram in the final stretch of the election had little or no effect on the political opinions, your negative opinions about opposing parties, or beliefs about complaints of electoral fraud. Second, stopping using Facebook does affect people’s knowledge and beliefs. “Those who left Facebook responded worse to news tests, but they were also less likely to believe widespread hoaxes, suggesting that the platform may be an important channel for both true and false news,” he says.

Although the result is not crystal clear, for Gentzkow it is quite surprising: “Previous research has shown that exposure to hoaxes is often quite low for most people, so I was really surprised to see this effect large enough.” to be marginally detectable,” he says.

An unprecedented macro study

Aside from being part of an unprecedented macro study using internal Meta data, the work is also the largest ever done on network deactivation. The sample is ten times larger than previous works, according to the article. Its authors, however, admit that the work has limitations when it comes to measuring the real impact of a network like Facebook in democracies. “This study has the same problem as the previous ones,” says David García, a professor at the University of Konstanz (Germany) who commented on the summer 2023 articles in Nature. “He is only able to experiment with individuals who are within a society where many other people continue to use Facebook and Instagram normally. When we talk about Facebook effect“We think about what society would be like without Facebook compared to Facebook, not what the people who do not use the network are like compared to those who do,” explains García.

Gentzkow admits that goal is beyond the reach of academia: “It is not possible to do an experiment now to directly answer the question of what polarization would have been like if Facebook had never existed.” At least this experiment does answer that Instagram does not play in this league: the article does not find any type of effect on the network focused on photographs and influencers. “Other than a reduction in engagement, we found no significant impacts of deactivating Instagram on any other outcomes,” the article says. “This is true even among younger users, and suggests that, despite Instagram’s rapid growth, Facebook probably remains the platform with the greatest impact on politics,” he adds.

The study also found that users who left Facebook for six weeks had reduced their trust in the political information they saw on Facebook, something that also occurred on Instagram: “One potential explanation is that being away from a platform makes its users more aware of the low-quality or inaccurate information to which they are being exposed,” the authors write in the article.

Although one of the findings of the work is that participation (especially on-line) user policy is reduced without being on Facebook, the percentage of voters is not reduced: less participation on-line It does not make fewer users go to the polls.

The research also does not find effects of deactivating Instagram and Facebook on polarization, perceived legitimacy of the elections or preference of a candidate. Another question that the researchers wanted to answer at work is how important Facebook was to Donald Trump. They have not found definitive data to affirm that the platform helped Trump. Although the results are “statistically insignificant,” they do indicate that deactivation has an effect on the choice of who to vote for: “Deactivation reduced the index in favor of Trump, reduced participation among Republicans, and increased participation among Democrats,” the article says.

Researcher David García believes that the work could have been clearer on this point: “The result regarding the vote for Trump is very interesting. It does not reach the level pre-specified by scientists but because the standard of evidence they had is very high. If they had assumed that deactivating Facebook lowers the vote for Trump, it would have passed the test. I see more important evidence than it seems in the text. The effect was small for the amount of data they had, but it doesn’t seem so small to me when you think about how close elections in the US usually are,” he explains.

To get the 19,857 users who have completed the six weeks of deactivation and responded to the full questionnaire, Facebook invited 10.6 million users to use the platform in the US and 637,388 clicked on the invitation. Of all of these, only 19,857 people completed the entire route, charging 162 euros to deactivate their accounts for six weeks and complete the surveys. On Instagram Meta invited 2.6 million users and achieved 15,585 participants.

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