Social media platforms’ “stranglehold on data” prevents scholars tackling pressing questions such as the rise of political polarisation and extremism, according to a leading academic.
Helen Margetts, professor of society and the internet at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Internet Institute, argues that the capacity to research social media will be “crucial to understanding underlying trends and patterns in political behaviour in the future”, but warns that data from most platforms are not available to researchers.
In a comment article published in Nature Human Behaviour, Professor Margetts says that some commentators have “already pointed to the problems caused by social media platforms’ stranglehold on data pertaining to democracy, in terms of being able to analyse electoral campaigns at a time when polling methodologies are increasingly ineffective”.
During the US 2016 presidential election period, around 128 million people across the country generated 8.8 billion likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election on Facebook alone, Professor Margetts says.
However, "instead of working out systematically" how social media influenced users' political thinking, "we lurch between moral panic about the pathological effect of social media on politics, and saying that it makes no difference at all and is not important", she says.
Professor Margetts says that experiments could be conducted to understand how social media impacts on political behaviour, and that academics could help to make the algorithms used to determine news feeds more transparent so that people “have some idea of what political diet they are eating”.
However, Facebook – which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp – is reluctant to work with academics to publish results, says Professor Margetts, partly as a result of how an experiment to investigate the effect of increasing the proportion of sad items in news feeds resulted in a media storm over Facebook’s experimental “manipulation of emotions”.
“Ironically at a time when there is the possibility of more data being available to political science research than at any time in the field’s history, researchers have access to very little to tackle the pressing questions of our time, such as the rise of political polarisation and extremism,” she writes.
Professor Margetts also questions the notion that the design of social media platforms leads to “echo chambers”, in which people are surrounded by like-minded people and opinions that reinforce their own belief systems.
“People have always been good at creating environments where they associate with like-minded people, for example, in neighbourhoods, clubs and associations,” she writes. “It could be that on digital media we merely replicate pre-existing offline echo chambers.”
But she says the lack of available data means that speculation over the existence of echo chambers, or how fake news is created, “vastly outpaces” any experimental studies of their existence.