Conservatives Consumed Most of the Misinformation on Facebook – BCB #63
Also: the partisan issue gap has increased over two decades; Utah leads in depolarization efforts.
A new study of Facebook looks at the posting and consumption of political news in the run-up to the 2020 election, trying to tease out the effects of the Feed algorithm. The results have been extensively covered elsewhere, but we wanted to highlight one striking result: the stories labeled as misinformation by Meta’s third-party fact-checking program were almost entirely posted and seen by highly Red audiences.
Researchers analyzed data from 208 million U.S. Facebook users tracking the political news they could have seen (as posted by each person’s friends and groups), the posts they actually saw (as selected by the algorithm), and what they engaged with (clicked, liked, shared, etc.). The horizontal axis in the charts below corresponds to the political ideology of each misinformation link (as measured by the ideology of the audience who saw it), while the vertical axis counts the number of links (URLs) which were labeled as misinformation. These show that misinformation is both posted and consumed almost entirely by Red users, and is particularly concentrated in Facebook pages and groups.
Of course, this all depends on assuming that misinformation is flagged objectively. Meta claims its fact-checking system is non-partisan and transparent, as individual stories are labeled by a variety of third party fact checking organizations.
Republicans and conservatives shared much more information from low-quality misinformation sites than Democrats and liberals - even when information quality was judged by a politically-balanced group of American laypeople.
It could still be that while individual misinformation labels are objective, there is bias in what stories or statements are selected for fact checking. This seems possible, because the stories are not selected randomly. Rather, potential misinformation is identified by Facebook algorithms, after which fact checking organizations are presented with a queue of possible stories to check. Both the algorithms and the fact checkers might be asymmetrically deciding what to check.
We suspect that such selection bias is real, but it also seems that there is genuinely much more misinformation circulating in the Red media ecosystem. There are simply less high-quality news sites on the Red side, and more scammers. This most recent Facebook study joins considerable previous evidence suggesting that this asymmetry is real.
Partisan differences in views on 24 issues have grown significantly between 2003 and 2023. Predictably, the issues with the widest partisan gaps are at the forefront of the culture wars and heavily discussed in the media.
The largest change is in Red’s perception that the government has too much power, which increased particularly after Obama’s 2012 re-election. Since 2003, Blue’s concerns about global warming have grown, whereas Red has stayed roughly unchanged. Red was initially more satisfied than Blue with the public schooling system. However, between 2013 and 2023, Blue’s satisfaction increased while Red’s dropped sharply.
Finally, the partisan gap on whether abortion should be legal is today the largest of any issue measured, increasing to 47% in 2023. This may reflect Roe v. Wade being overturned in June 2022.
Utah seems to be overrepresented in national-level depolarization efforts. Both Tami Pyfer’s Dignity Index that flags polarizing speech and Governor Spencer Cox’s Disagree Better Initiative are based there.
Both initiatives are led by Mormons, which may help explain why Utah’s approach to conservatism differs from other Red states. Utah’s leadership has been making religiously inspired political decisions for some time.
During the Syrian refugee crisis, when several Republican governors refused to take in Syrian refugees, [Pyfer] noted that Utah’s former governor, Gary Herbert, was the only Republican to say “we welcome them with open arms.” [Pyfer] added, “We are a state built upon religious refugees seeking refuge, and he said “we will take more.”
In 2020, Governor Spencer Cox created a campaign ad with his Blue opponent. Later, his video was a top pick in Stanford’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge, where 31,000 Americans tried 252 depolarizing interventions.
The Utah ad was one of the most effective, coming in at No. 2 for reducing support for partisan violence and No. 4 for reducing support for undemocratic practices, including overthrowing an election, gerrymandering and trying to withhold votes from people.
Religion has historically played a big role in peacemaking. One of the key figures behind conflict transformation, John Paul Lederach, identifies as Christian and credits his religious belief for informing his influential conflict resolution process. Some interesting depolarization work is coming out of Utah, and it's worth keeping an eye out for what they’ll do next.
Quote of the Week
All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.