An Assumption That Isn’t True

By RYAN BOURNE

It is often said that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on”.

The great and good all seem to agree that there’s a new boogeyman for fake news: The internet — or, more specifically, social media.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the charge sheet for sites such as Facebook and Twitter is long. They are said to give a platform for wild conspiracy theories, facilitate the spreading of misinformation, and help create “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles,” whereby people only see news and views which back up their own opinions.

The Economist ran a front-page story implying that social media was the nemesis of democracy. In the U.S., Facebook has been in the firing line of Democratic politicians since it came to light that as many as 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-sponsored ads during the Presidential election campaign.

Conventional wisdom increasingly suggests that social media is polarizing our politics and even helping to swing elections.

But is there any evidence to justify these conclusions?

Economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentkow and Jesse Shapiro collected data to test whether the internet was to blame for polarization and could explain the Trump victory in 2016.

Their results might surprise you.

The increase in polarization in the past 20 years is twice as large for over 65s compared to 18-39 year olds, despite the former obtaining information online and using social media at significantly lower rates.

Similar results are found when controlling for other potential demographic determinants of internet usage, such as education and race: The groups least likely to have internet access displayed greater increases in polarization.

They found no support either for the idea that the internet was critical to Trump’s success. Using three measures of internet exposure, Trump did as well or better than his Republican predecessors among groups with low internet exposure, and as well or worse among groups with high internet exposure.

Now, it could be that Trump would have done much worse among regular internet users absent developments in social media.

But on the face of it, there is no supporting evidence from this work that social media can be blamed for polarization.

As the economist Tyler Cowen has written, free speech itself often leads to the articulation of bad ideas that we may disagree with. It can reveal ugly undersides to society, and can encourage groupthink.

But attacking the mediums used for free speech makes no sense.

Ryan Bourne is a scholar at Cato Institute (cato. org) in Washington. A longer version of this article appeared in the London-based City A.M..

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