Social Media, News Consumption and Polarization: Evidence from a Field Experiment (Job Talk)

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Does social media increase the consumption of ideologically congruent news and 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 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 leaning of news outlets affects political opinions. Fourth, Facebook's algorithm is less likely to supply individuals with posts from counter-attitudinal outlets, conditional on individuals subscribing to them (a “filter bubble”). Together, these results suggest that social media algorithms are increasing polarization by limiting exposure to counter-attitudinal news.

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