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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

"Big Lie" hits California recall election

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The "Big Lie," a falsehood peddled by Donald Trump that the 2020 election was "stolen," is now being peddled by conservative figures amid other down-ballot elections, most notably, the California recall election.

Why it matters: Now that the precedent has been set, some conservatives will likely use unfounded allegations of election fraud as a basis for undermining all potential election outcomes they don't agree with.

Students vandalize and steal from schools for viral TikTok challenge

TikTok logo displayed on a phone screen in Krakow, Poland on July 18, 2021. Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A viral TikTok challenge is leading students nationwide to shatter mirrors, steal fire alarms and intentionally clog toilets, The Washington Post reports.

Driving the news: Dubbed the the “Devious Licks challenge, students are showing off their "devious licks" on TikTok — with a sped-up version of "Ski Ski BasedGod" by rapper Lil’ B playing in the background.

Axios-Ipsos poll: People of color face more environmental threats

Expand chart
Data: Axios/Ipsos poll; Note: ±2.5% margin of error; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Americans of color are much less likely than white Americans to experience good air quality or tap water or enough trees or green space in their communities, and they're more likely to face noise pollution and litter, a new Axios-Ipsos poll finds.

The big picture: Our national survey shows Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to live near major highways or industrial or manufacturing plants — and to have dealt in the past year with water-boil notices or power outages lasting more than 24 hours.