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Is Facebook Making Us More Polarized or Not?
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Is Facebook Making Us More Polarized or Not?

Plus: Aliens 👽

Happy Tuesday! As we noted last week, Trader Joe’s recalled two types of cookies over concerns that they contained rocks. This week, the grocery store announced a recall of its falafel … over concerns it contains rocks.

Might be time to break up with their wholesaler, who we can only assume is one of Charlie Brown’s neighbors.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Republican-led House Judiciary, Oversight, and Ways and Means committees launched inquiries into Hunter Biden’s plea deal Monday, sending a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland scrutinizing portions of the agreement and questioning whether the Justice Department investigation into Biden is still ongoing. Separately, Devon Archer—an ex-business associate of Hunter’s—testified before the Oversight Committee Monday in a closed session probing the business dealings of the president’s son. According to lawmakers present at the briefing, Archer told the committee that Hunter would take calls from his father during business meetings and sometimes put him on speakerphone, but the elder Biden never discussed business and mostly engaged in casual conversation. He said Hunter sold “the illusion of access” to his father.
  • A Russian missile strike on a residential building in Kryvyi Rih—a city in central Ukraine distant from the frontlines—killed six people including a 10-year-old girl and injured 75. Two Ukrainian drones struck office buildings in Moscow over the weekend as attacks reaching into Russia have increased in recent weeks. “Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia, to its symbolic centers and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural, and absolutely fair process,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday.
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Monday that it would no longer consider race in its admissions and hiring processes—barring the use of application essays or other methods for indirectly taking race into account. The school’s board of trustees cited the Supreme Court decision last month in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina which declared the school’s admissions process unconstitutional.
  • The Catholic Diocese of Syracuse in upstate New York has reached a settlement over more than 400 abuse claims filed by 387 people, agreeing to pay the victims $100 million. Notably, the money will not be paid out by insurance companies that cover the diocese but the diocese itself and its parishes.
  • After detaining the country’s president last week, members of Niger’s presidential guard arrested several high-ranking government officials Monday including oil and mining ministers. The new junta arrested the ministers of defense, transport, and interior last week and on Monday captured the head of President Mohamed Bazoum’s Democracy and Socialism party and the son of Niger’s former president.
  • The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a political rally in northwestern Pakistan Monday. The attack left at least 54 people dead and nearly 200 injured at an event hosted by a pro-Taliban party.
  • Building on legislation passed late last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday implementing a major overhaul of how the Uniform Code of Military Justice handles cases of sexual assault, rape, and murder. Rather than leaving prosecutorial decisions to individual military commanders, the change removes military commanders’ power to decide whether to prosecute charges and transfers that power to special independent prosecutors. The order follows congressional action in 2021 directing the president to finalize the changes before the end of 2023.
  • The Defense Department announced Monday that President Joe Biden had decided to keep the U.S. Space Command headquarters in Colorado, reversing a Trump administration move that would’ve moved the facility—which has been in Colorado on a temporary basis—to Alabama. A Pentagon spokesman said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, and U.S. Space Command chief Gen. James Dickinson all backed Biden’s decision to remain in Colorado, but some Air Force officials reportedly saw Alabama as a preferable option.
  • Paul Reubens, an actor and creator of the comedic Pee-wee Herman character, died on Sunday at the age of 70 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Tweaking the Algorithm

Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook account is seen on a mobile phone screen. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook account is seen on a mobile phone screen. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Even when your own company funds research and company researchers help produce it, it’s hard to avoid over-interpreting the results—just ask Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, who had to tone down his summary of research findings from four new papers about Facebook’s impact on polarization ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

His blog post about the research first offered a sweeping victory lap—“there is little evidence that social media causes harmful ‘affective’ polarization or has any meaningful impact on key political attitudes”—before being updated to more narrowly declare that “there is little evidence that key features of Meta’s platforms alone cause harmful ‘affective’ polarization.”

Even that may be an overstatement: The papers have little to say about how people got polarized in the first place. But they do suggest that popular policy proposals—including chronological newsfeeds and limiting exposure to viral content while boosting contact with different viewpoints—don’t quickly reduce political polarization.

Published in the prestigious Science and Nature journals, the four papers released last week are the first of 16 expected from a 2020-election research project from Meta and researchers from schools including Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Texas. Meta spent $20 million on the research but didn’t pay the external researchers themselves or have veto power over the conclusions—though researchers couldn’t access raw data, instead receiving what Meta researchers had anonymized.

First, one study of data aggregated from 208 million American Facebook users confirmed that both conservatives and liberals tend to live in their ideological bubbles on Facebook—but that the trend is stronger for conservatives, “with a substantial corner of the news ecosystem consumed exclusively by conservatives.” (Disclosure: The Dispatch is a third-party fact-checker in Meta’s fact-checking program.)

“Facebook, as a social and informational setting, is substantially segregated ideologically—far more than previous research on internet news consumption based on browsing behavior has found,” the researchers wrote, adding that content shared by pages and groups is even more ideologically segregated than that shared by friends.

In another study, researchers tested showing Facebook and Instagram users chronological feeds instead of algorithmically powered ones. Users with chronological feeds spent much less time on the platforms—bad news for Meta’s bottom line—and saw a more ideologically diverse array of content. But they also saw more political content in general—about 15 percent more on Facebook and 5 percent on Instagram. Meanwhile, a chronological feed erased Meta’s efforts at the time to reduce the reach of untrustworthy content, so users saw about 69 percent more untrustworthy content on Facebook and 22 percent on Instagram. Researchers found the intervention “did not significantly alter levels of issue polarization” or change users’ level of political activity like signing petitions. 

Meanwhile, another study on deprioritizing ideologically like-minded content from users’ feeds found it made no difference to their polarization, embrace of extreme ideas, or belief in false information. “These results are not consistent with the worst fears about echo chambers,” the scientists wrote. “However, the data clearly indicate that Facebook users are much more likely to see content from like-minded sources than they are to see content from cross-cutting sources.”

Researchers also tested removing reshared content from users’ feeds in a bid to reduce exposure to viral—often false or misleading—content. This step decreased users’ views of all political content by 20 percent and political news by more than half while reducing content seen from untrustworthy sources by about 31 percent. But once again, it didn’t reduce users’ polarization, and it decreased their overall news knowledge.

“Most of the news about politics that people see in their Facebook feeds comes from reshares,” said researcher and Princeton professor Andrew Guess. “When you take the reshared posts out of people’s feeds, that means they are seeing less virality-prone and potentially misleading content. But that also means they are seeing less content from trustworthy sources, which is even more prevalent among reshares.”

All of this is bad news for those who hope a few algorithmic tweaks will have America singing in harmony—and takes the pressure off of Meta leaders to sacrifice maximum engagement for civic duty. But researchers involved with the papers cautioned against over-interpreting their findings to take Facebook off the hook altogether. “Changing the algorithm for even a few months isn’t likely to change people’s political attitudes,” wrote project leaders Talia Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University. “What we don’t know is why. It could be because the length of time for which the algorithms were changed wasn’t long enough, or these platforms have been around for decades already, or that while Facebook and Instagram are influential sources of information, they are not people’s only sources.” 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, meanwhile, suggested to the Washington Post that the research took place during a period when Facebook had taken unusual steps to reduce misinformation surrounding the election—steps it rolled back afterward. The study of chronological feeds, she noted, couldn’t account for how the algorithm may have previously pushed users into extreme groups—and once in those groups, seeing the content in chronological order didn’t alter its polarizing effect.

Others agreed that just because tweaking algorithms didn’t reduce polarization doesn’t mean algorithms didn’t contribute to the rise of polarization in the first place. “Facebook may have already done such an effective job of getting users addicted to feeds that satisfy their desires that they are already segregated beyond alteration,” wrote Science editor-in-chief Holden Thorp. 

The project brought in a professor to observe the process—attending meetings, interviewing researchers—to test its independence from manipulation by Meta. Michael Wagner, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, praised the research results but cautioned against seeing the project as a model for future corporate-academic partnerships, noting Meta’s control over what data researchers accessed and their comparatively limited understanding of its platforms. “Researchers don’t know what they don’t know, and the incentives are not clear for industry partners to reveal everything they know about their platforms,” he wrote. “The collaboration resulted in independent research, but it was independence by permission from Meta.”

Congress Digs Into UFOs

In the final pages of the 1980s comic Watchmen, a devastating attack by a supposed extraterrestrial brings the world together and pulls the United States and the Soviet Union back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. The prospect of little green men zipping around the earth’s stratosphere in Tic Tac-shaped flying machines had a similarly unifying effect on the good men and women of the U.S. Congress last week, when the House Oversight national security subcommittee heard testimony on unidentified anomalous or aerial objects, or UAPs. (UAP is a fancy government acronym for what the rest of us know as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.)

The downright collegial spirit that infected the chamber made Invasion of the Body Snatchers look like a documentary. Representatives—including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Andy Biggs, normally on different ideological planets—spent more than two hours Wednesday united in their desire for more transparency regarding the U.S. government’s knowledge of UFOs, framing particularly the Defense Department’s tight hold on relevant information  as cutting to the heart of Americans’ trust in government institutions. Incredible testimony from one “whistleblower”—which drew fire from the Pentagon—went beyond advocating for transparency and veered into the conspiratorial.       

Three witnesses appeared before the committee, two of whom had their own tales of an unexplainable encounter with a UFO. David Fravor, a former pilot for the Navy, said he experienced one of the “most credible UFO sightings in history” after witnessing what he described as a large “Tic Tac”-like ship maneuvering through the air while he was flying a training mission off the coast of San Diego, California, in 2004. Ryan Graves, also a former Navy pilot, had a similar experience a decade later and on the opposite coast. While flying a training mission off the coast of Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 2014, he shared the sky with “dark gray or black cubes […] inside of a clear sphere, where the apex or tips of the cubes were touching the inside of that sphere.” The Pentagon has declassified radar footage of the Tic Tac incident. 

The third witness, David Grusch, is a former intelligence officer with the Air Force and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency who, he claims, worked on two Pentagon task forces investigating with UAPs, including reporting to the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), which investigates such reports. He resigned his post and became a whistleblower in May 2022, alarmed by what he says is credible evidence from dozens of high-ranking intelligence officials that the Pentagon is hiding information about UAPs from Congress. 

GOP Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, leading the charge on UAP transparency in the House, was all-in. “This is not a partisan issue—the cover-up goes much deeper than that,” he said in his opening statement.    

Before anyone starts passing around the tin foil hats, it’s worth noting the hearing’s explicit intention wasn’t to establish whether or not aliens exist—though lawmakers certainly danced around the idea. If we want answers to these questions, we should all be glad the United States Congress is not responsible for finding them. Plenty of astronomers and physicists are devoting their lives’ work to discovering whether or not there are places in the universe even suitable for life—nevermind whether life exists or is “intelligent,” the definition of which is itself open to interpretation. “We don’t know anything [about extraterrestrial life],” Bethany Cobb Kung, an associate professor of physics at George Washington University, tells TMD. “It’s, like, ‘Cool, that planet over there could potentially have liquid water.’ But that’s not the same thing as saying that it is habitable. It’s also not the same thing as saying it’s inhabited—that’s a whole other level.” 

And when it comes to UFOs, “[unidentified] does not imply that the object is extraterrestrial,” Cobb Kung tells TMD. “It just means it’s unidentified.” There are plenty of non-E.T. explanations for the mystery: secret technology in development, an adversary’s drone, or something more mundane like a trick of the human eye or imperfect digital imaging tools. 

This isn’t the first time in recent months Congress has heard testimony on UFOs, much in the news after a Chinese spy balloon crossed the U.S. and was shot down off the coast of South Carolina in February. Appearing before the emerging threats subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, Sean Kirkpatrick, the head of AARO, said his office was making progress toward standardizing reporting procedures for pilots who encounter UFOs and investigating those occurrences. “I want to underscore today that only a very small percentage of UAP reports display signatures that could reasonably be described as ‘anomalous,’” he told the committee. “While a large number of cases in our holdings remain technically unresolved, this is primarily due to a lack of data associated with these cases.”

Fravor, the former Navy pilot, batted down alternative explanations. He suggested what he saw “defies current material science” and was unlikely to originate from an adversary. Both he, his wingman, the two people in the F-18s with them, plus imaging technology from several nearby Navy ships saw the UFO, which they agreed defied earthly explanation.   

Though he had never personally seen a UFO in action, Grusch was ready with some of the most sensational claims of the hearing about the U.S. government’s knowledge of extraterrestrial UFOs and attempts to cover it up. In his opening statement, Grusch said the Pentagon was acting “above congressional oversight” on a super-secret, “multi-decade UAP crash retrieval and reverse-engineering program.” 

During his testimony, Grusch repeatedly referenced an interview he gave to NewsNation in June as the sum of what he could say in an open hearing—usually without fully repeating the claims he made in the article. In the interview, he said the U.S. government was in possession of “quite a number” of spacecraft of  “non-human” origin, some the size of football fields. He also suggested in the interview that “sometimes you encounter dead pilots” of these crash-landed vessels. 

He frequently demurred when pressed for more specifics, citing his need for a classified venue, which Florida GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna said they’d been denied because Grusch could not be granted a temporary clearance to enter a SCIF—a “sensitive compartmented information facility.” In response to a question from Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, Grusch said non-human “biologics” were discovered with these crash-landed craft, but said he couldn’t describe the documentary evidence for those claims in a public setting. He was similarly evasive when Burchett asked if he was aware of anyone being murdered in relation to the alleged cover-up. 

Kirkpatrick was less-than-pleased with Grusch’s testimony. In a post to his LinkedIn account Friday that did not name Grusch, he denied Grusch had ever worked for or been a representative to AARO. He also disputed one of Grusch’s key claims: “AARO has yet to find any credible evidence to support the allegations of any reverse-engineering program for non-human technology,” Kirkpatrick wrote. A spokesperson for the Pentagon echoed the rebuttal. 

Some of the witnesses’ testimony was less out-of-this-world. Graves in particular advocated for a more sophisticated system that would allow military and commercial pilots to report encounters with UFOs, something he said is “routine.” He argued pilots don’t have enough information to safely respond to UFO sightings, and face ridicule and even professional retaliation if they do see something in the air they can’t explain. “I urge us to put aside stigma and address the security and safety issue this topic represents,” he told the committee. “If UAP are foreign drones, it is an urgent national security problem. If it is something else, it is an issue for science. In either case, unidentified objects are a concern for flight safety. The American people deserve to know what is happening in our skies.”

Worth Your Time

  • People were never meant to derive their sense of meaning or purpose from politics, Ronald Dworkin notes in Law & Liberty—but too many today are trying to squeeze blood from that stone. “People who feel unhappiness are naturally filled with religious-like sentiments. They seek to understand the mystery of what they feel as much as they seek relief from their condition,” he notes. “Who can have sent this enemy into the camp of our lives, they ask? And who exactly is this enemy? As more Americans try to address their private pain by seeking answers in illusions—illusions that in some way correspond to the agenda of a political movement—American politics grows increasingly extreme, chaotic, and uncompromising. By piggybacking their problems onto the realms of interests and ideology, these people inject into the American political system problems that the system was never designed to handle.”

Presented Without Comment

Oakland NAACP: “Oakland residents are sick and tired of our intolerable public safety crisis that overwhelmingly impacts minority communities. … Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police, our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals.”

Also Presented Without Comment

Gov. Ron DeSantis: “I wouldn’t say [my campaign is] too online. I think that there’s a place for that. But ultimately, people in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re not following the latest Twitter war, they’re following what’s going on in their lives. And I’m very cognizant of that.”

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Semafor: “Senior aides to Ron DeSantis oversaw the campaign’s high-risk strategy of laundering incendiary videos produced by their staff through allied anonymous Twitter accounts, a set of internal campaign communications obtained by Semafor reveals.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Declan will be joined by Drucker, Audrey, Price, and Mary to discuss what is shaping up to be a very busy news week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team checks in on the jockeying to succeed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2025, Nick offers (🔒) a particularly bleak take on a new New York Times/Siena poll, and Kevin looks at (🔒) the Achilles heel of the rich and powerful: valets.
  • On the podcasts: David and Sarah discuss Justice Samuel Alito’s latest appearance in the Wall Street Journal and Donald Trump’s mounting legal bills, while Steve and Sarah check in on (🔒) their bet amid Trump’s soaring poll numbers and DeSantis’ rough patch.
  • On the site: Audrey B. explains the controversy surrounding Hunter Biden’s art purchases and Stirewalt reflects on the centennial of Warren Harding’s death and Calvin Coolidge’s subsequent ascent. 

Let Us Know

Do you think your social media diet has shaped your worldview?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Jacob Wendler is an intern for The Dispatch.