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The End of Real Social Networks

Social media platforms are not only creating echo chambers, propagating falsehoods, and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. Previous media innovations, dating back at least to the printing press, did that, too, but none of them shook the very foundations of human communication and social interaction.

CAMBRIDGE – Not only are billions of people around the world glued to their mobile phones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically – and not for the better. On dominant social-media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that falsehoods spread faster and more widely than similar content that includes accurate information. Though users are not demanding misinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content, because that is what generates “engagement” and thus advertising revenue.

As the internet activist Eli Pariser noted in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles, whereby individuals are more likely to be presented with content that reinforces their own ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has demonstrated that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.

Even leaving aside Facebook’s algorithmic choices, the broader social-media ecosystem allows people to find subcommunities that align with their interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are the only person in your community with an interest in ornithology, you no longer have to be alone, because you can now connect with ornithology enthusiasts from around the world. But, of course, the same applies to the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access or propagate hate speech and conspiracy theories.

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