Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review
This Google doc is an open-source working document that contains the citations and abstracts of published articles that shed light on a question that is currently being debated within many democratic nations: Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies since the early 2010s? This is too broad a question to be answered, so we break it down into seven more specific questions for which there is a substantial research literature.
This document is curated by Jonathan Haidt (NYU-Stern) and Chris Bail (Duke), with research assistance from Zach Rausch. If you are a researcher or industry insider and have studies or comments to add, please click the “Request Access” button above (while signed in to a Google account), tell us who you are, and Zach will give you commenter status. We especially welcome critical comments: What studies have we missed, or misinterpreted?
Some readers seem to be unable to see the comments from researchers in the right hand margin. If you don’t see a comment attached to this text, try using Chrome as your browser, and be signed in to a Google account.
You can cite this document as: Haidt, J., & Bail, C. (ongoing). Social media and political dysfunction: A collaborative review. Unpublished manuscript, New York University.
First posted: November 2, 2021. Last updated: November 10th, 2022.
You can always find this document at: https://tinyurl.com/PoliticalDysfunctionReview
To see Haidt’s other Collaborative Review docs:
* Adolescent mood disorders since 2010: A collaborative review [with Jean Twenge]
* Social Media and Mental Health: A Collaborative Review [with Jean Twenge]
Clickable Table of Contents
NOTES AND CAVEATS 5
QUESTION 1: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA MAKE PEOPLE MORE ANGRY OR AFFECTIVELY POLARIZED? 7
1.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 8
1.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO 14
1.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 19
1.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION #1 24
QUESTION 2: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA CREATE ECHO CHAMBERS? 24
2.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 24
2.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO 31
2.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 38
2.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION #2 49
QUESTION 3: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA AMPLIFY POSTS THAT ARE MORE EMOTIONAL, INFLAMMATORY, OR FALSE? 51
3.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 52
3.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO 63
3.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 69
3.4. DISCUSSION OF QUESTION 3 83
QUESTION 4: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA INCREASE THE PROBABILITY OF VIOLENCE? 83
4.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 83
4.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO 86
4.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 86
4.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION 4 87
QUESTION 5: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA ENABLE FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS TO INCREASE POLITICAL DYSFUNCTION IN THE UNITED STATES AND OTHER DEMOCRACIES? 87
5.1 STUDIES AND REPORTS INDICATING YES 87
5.2 STUDIES AND REPORTS INDICATING NO, OR MINIMAL EFFECTS 93
5.3 UNCLASSIFIED 94
5.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION 5 96
QUESTION 6: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA DECREASE TRUST? 96
6.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 96
6.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO, OR MINIMAL EFFECTS 101
6.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 102
6.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION 6 102
QUESTION 7: DOES SOCIAL MEDIA STRENGTHEN POPULIST MOVEMENTS? 102
7.1 STUDIES INDICATING YES 103
7.2 STUDIES INDICATING NO, OR MINIMAL EFFECTS 109
7.3 MIXED RESULTS OR UNCLASSIFIED 111
7.4 DISCUSSION OF QUESTION 7 111
8. OTHER STUDIES NOT YET CLASSIFIED 111
9. MAJOR REVIEW ARTICLES, REPORTS, AND DATABASES 117
10. BOOKS BY SCHOLARS 136
11. PROPOSALS FOR IMPROVING SOCIAL MEDIA 143
11.1 On the need for and legitimacy of federal regulation 143
11.2 User Authentication 144
11.3 Age Restrictions and Age Appropriate Design 146
11.4 Platform accountability and transparency 146
11.5 Architectural changes to reduce virality 146
11.6 Changing incentives to reduce trolling and antisocial behavior 147
11.7 Changing parameters to reduce the noise/signal ratio 147
11.8 Miscellaneous additional reforms 147
12. CONCLUSION 148
APPENDIX A: TIMELINE OF PLATFORM CHANGES 148
APPENDIX B: PNAS SPECIAL ISSUE ON POLARIZATION AND COMPLEX SYSTEMS 151
APPENDIX C: CRITIQUES OF HAIDT’S “UNIQUELY STUPID” ATLANTIC ARTICLE 159
APPENDIX D: IS POLITICAL DYSFUNCTION INCREASING IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA? 160
APPENDIX E: EMPIRICAL STUDIES THAT BEAR ON WAYS TO IMPROVE SOCIAL MEDIA 168
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the 1990s, it seemed that liberal democracy had triumphed over all other forms of government as the best way to run a modern, prosperous, diverse nation. When the Internet became widespread, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed to be a gift to democracy; what dictator could stand up to the people, empowered? How could any nation keep the internet out? Techno-democratic optimism arguably reached a high point in 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring, followed by mass protests in Israel and Spain, and culminating with the Occupy movement that began in New York City and then spread globally.
The 2010s did not turn out as many of us expected. Democracy is now on the back foot, with more countries becoming less democratic, and the decline begins or accelerates in the 2010s (see Appendix D). The United States in particular has veered into deep political dysfunction, intense affective polarization, and televised political violence. Alternatives to liberal democracy are more numerous— and in some ways more stable—including illiberal democracies such as Hungary, and the one-party authoritarian system developing in China.
What happened? Why is the outlook for democracy so much darker in 2022 than it was in 2011?
Among the most widely discussed causes of recent political dysfunction is social media, which transformed social connections, mass movements, news consumption, and avenues for electoral interference, manipulation, and misinformation. The two unexpected successes of the Brexit referendum and the Trump campaign, both in 2016, turned attention to Facebook in particular, but also to Twitter and YouTube. A number of popular books in recent years have made the case that Facebook, in particular, was a danger to democracy. Reporting by the Wall Street Journal (The Facebook Files), and by the New York Times and Washington Post also pointed to democracy-disrupting effects of Facebook and other platforms.
Is it true? Are Facebook and other social media platforms damaging democracies? Documents brought out by whistleblower Frances Haugen, along with her Congressional testimony, suggest the answer may be “yes.” Facebook denies the charge, and points to several studies published by social scientists in its defense. A systematic review of the literature is therefore needed to communicate the findings of this rapidly evolving literature to the public. Unfortunately, there is now so much research published (or circulating as working papers) that it is impossible for anyone who does not study this question full time to know what is out there, and what it all adds up to. Hence this document.
We (Haidt & Bail) have organized the document into the major questions that extant research has addressed. For each question, we list all the published studies we can find (along with working papers from established researchers), grouped into those that support the proposition that social media is harming democracies, and those that do not support the proposition. After we created the initial framework for this document we invited other researchers to add other studies we had missed, and to critique the relevance or interpretation provided in the text below.
We thank these researchers for offering their ideas and constructive criticisms:
Kevin Munger (Penn State U), David Rand (MIT), Andy Guess (Princeton), Will Blakey (UNC), Richard Fletcher (University of Oxford), Sacha Altay (University of Oxford), Olivia Fischer (University of Zurich), Tim Samples (University of Georgia) [more to come]... And we thank Gideon Lewis-Kraus for exploring this collaborative review, and criticisms of it, in an essay in The New Yorker.
NOTES AND CAVEATS
1. What do we mean by “Political dysfunction”?
A comprehensive overview of the many effects of social media on politics is beyond the scope of this review. We acknowledge that there is evidence that social media has created positive outcomes on issues such as voter registration, mobilization within authoritarian regimes, and others, but this review focuses on evidence of harm (see Lorenz-Spreen et al. 2022 [study 9.1.13] for evidence that the benefits of social media are mostly found in less developed democracies, while the harms are more frequently found in advanced democracies). We review the literature on social media and political dysfunction. Our definition of political dysfunction includes political polarization— including not only increasing disagreement about substantive issues but also the rise in negative feelings and attitudes between partisans (often referred to as “affective polarization”). Our definition of dysfunction also includes a broader set of behavioral and attitudinal outcomes including a) support for the use of violence to achieve political ends; b) alienation from the democratic process (through voter suppression or general apathy about government); c) declining trust in government, politicians, and key institutions; d) decreased willingness to listen to or work with those from other groups/parties, and e) the spread of misinfo