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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

Dec 16, 2021 - Technology

How the U.S. is taking cues from Europe on tech policy

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Europe is leading the way as Congress and U.S. regulators slowly figure out how America could regulate the digital economy.

Why it matters: Europe's tech regulation influence on the U.S. marks a notable shift in the setting of global standards as international lawmakers continue to scrutinize Big Tech.

FAA clears more planes after 5G fears

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday it had approved nearly 80% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports with new 5G services after fears of signal interference limited 5G rollout.

Why it matters: The FAA approvals will help provide more certainty after the agency raised fears that 5G signals could reduce the accuracy of certain equipment, known as radio altimeters, that helps planes land and take off in inclement weather.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

Peloton stock tanks on report of production halt

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Peloton stock fell by as much as 25% on Thursday, following a CNBC report that the connected fitness company will temporarily halt production on its bikes and treadmills.

Why it matters: Peloton is viewed by many as a proxy for consumer behavior in the pandemic era, as its popularity surged when gyms closed and people wanted to exercise at home.