Testing the causal impact of social media on polarization around the globe
September 1, 2023 - August 31, 2025
Core Funding Area:
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Director: Jay Van BavelInstitution: New York University
Co-Director: Joshua TuckerInstitution: New York University
Research on the impact of social media on polarization has primarily focused on the US and UK. However, recent evidence suggests that the effects of social media on polarization may differ significantly in other countries. To help build a model of the various mechanisms driving polarization around the world, more research is needed to explore the interaction between online and offline social networks, cultural and political contexts, and their role in polarization across different countries.
A new project led by Jay Van Bavel and co-directed by Joshua Tucker at New York University aims to address this gap. The project team will collaborate with a team of hundreds of researchers across at least 20 (and up to 50) countries to conduct a cross-cultural field experiment in which participants are incentivized to temporarily deactivate their Facebook accounts for 2 weeks. The team plans to:
- Measure how this Facebook deactivation impacts affective polarization (e.g., animosity toward one’s out-group).
- Examine both affective polarization toward opposing political parties, as well as polarization toward other out-groups (e.g., ethnic polarization), which are both included in TWCF’s definition of polarization.
- Examine whether the effects of Facebook cessation are moderated by a number of country-level variables (such as the strength of a country’s democracy, whether a country has a two-party or multi-party system).
The project will also examine various variables, including individual differences, offline social networks, and country-level factors, to determine their predictive power in understanding polarization in a global context. The project will compare these findings with predictions from social media researchers and laypeople to evaluate existing polarization models. The dataset from this project, which will include a comprehensive list of translated measures of affective polarization in many countries, will be shared on the Open Science Framework so that other researchers can further study polarization in many cultural contexts.
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