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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Facebook and other social media companies didn't cause America's massive political divide, but they have widened it and pushed it towards violence, according to a report from New York University released Monday.

Why it matters: Congress, the Biden administration and governments around the world are moving on from blame-apportioning to choosing penalties and remedies for curbing online platforms' influence and fighting misinformation.

Driving the news: Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, and his co-authors reviewed more than 50 social science studies and interviewed dozens of academics, policy experts, activists, and current and former industry people.

  • They found that while social media platforms are not the cause of political polarization, they have intensified it.
  • "Social media is the mechanism for spreading the kind of mis- and disinformation that fuels the fire of political polarization," Barrett told Axios. He said social platforms erode trust and democratic norms in ways that have undermined the U.S.' pandemic response and acceptance of the 2020 election results.

The other side: Facebook has taken steps to dial back the amount of political content in its News Feed and touted its efforts to fight polarization in a blog post last year.

  • Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, argued this year that it is not in Facebook's interest to "push users" toward extremist content.
  • Clegg also highlighted studies about polarization to say the results are mixed, including one that found a break from Facebook did not lessen someone's negative feelings about the opposite political party.
  • "What evidence there is simply does not support the idea that social media, or the filter bubbles it supposedly creates, are the unambiguous driver of polarization that many assert," Clegg wrote.

Yes, but: Barrett's team said the study Clegg cited shows that staying off Facebook does reduce polarization on policy issues rather than partisan affiliation, and other research indicates Facebook has a heightening effect on polarization.

  • "It's important to overcome the message that Facebook has been trying to project that we really can't tell whether social media use has anything to do with political divisiveness and partisan hatred," Barrett said. "That just doesn't match up with facts."

What's next: The report offers several recommendations for both the government and platforms. The government, it says, should:

  • Mandate more disclosure of companies' ranking, recommendation and removal algorithms;
  • Give the Federal Trade Commission new powers to create industry standards;
  • And invest in alternative social media options like a PBS for the internet.

The report also recommends that platforms:

  • Adjust algorithms transparently to discourage polarization;
  • Increase the size of their content moderation teams;
  • And hide "like" and share counts to stop rewarding polarizing content.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
Sep 21, 2021 - Technology

Internet freedom declines for 11th year in a row

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

An increase in network shutdowns, combined with a rise in disinformation campaigns, adds up to another decline in internet freedom in the U.S. and around the globe, according to Freedom House.

Why it matters: It's the 11th consecutive year that the internet has been less free globally and the fifth straight yearly decline in the U.S., the group says in its annual report on the subject.

At least 3 dead after Amtrak train derails in Montana

Photo: Jacob Cordeiro/Twitter

An Amtrak train derailed near Joplin, Montana, resulting in at least three deaths and multiple injuries to passengers and crew on Saturday, per authorities and a company statement.

The big picture: 141 passengers and 16 crew members were estimated to be on the Empire Builder train, traveling from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, when eight of the 10 cars derailed about 4p.m., Amtrak said early Sunday.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Federal judge blocks vaccine mandate for NYC teachers

Students are dismissed from the first day of school at PS 133 in Brooklyn on Sept. 13. Photo: Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty Images

A federal appeals court is set to hear a challenge Wednesday to a vaccine mandate planned for New York City school employees.

Why it matters The vaccine mandate was set to begin on Monday, prompting concerns over staffing shortages in schools across the nation's largest school system. But a judge on Friday temporarily blocked the measure, per AP.