Social Media, News Consumption, and Polarization: Evidence from a Field Experiment
- American Economic Review (Forthcoming)
Does the consumption of ideologically congruent news on social media exacerbate polarization? I estimate
the effects of social media news exposure by conducting a large field experiment randomly offering
participants subscriptions to conservative or liberal news outlets on Facebook. I collect data on the causal
chain of media effects: subscriptions to outlets, exposure to news on Facebook, visits to online news sites,
and sharing of posts, as well as changes in political opinions and attitudes. Four main findings emerge.
First, random variation in exposure to news on social media substantially affects the slant of news sites
individuals visit. Second, exposure to counter-attitudinal news decreases negative attitudes toward the
opposing political party. Third, in contrast to the effect on attitudes, I find no evidence that the political
leanings of news outlets affect political opinions. Fourth, Facebook’s algorithm is less likely to supply
individuals with posts from counter-attitudinal outlets, conditional on individuals subscribing to them.
Together, the results suggest that social media algorithms may limit exposure to counter-attitudinal news
and thus increase polarization.
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