Do social media echo chambers deepen political polarization, or simply reflect existing social divisions?
A landmark research project that investigated Facebook around the 2020 US presidential election published its first results Thursday, finding that, contrary to assumption, the platform’s often criticized content-ranking algorithm doesn’t shape users’ beliefs.
The work is the product of a collaboration between Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — and a group of academics from US universities who were given broad access to internal company data, and signed up tens of thousands of users for experiments.
The academic team wrote four papers examining the role of the social media giant in American democracy, which were published in the scientific journals Science and Nature.
Overall, the algorithm was found to be “extremely influential in people’s on-platform experiences,” said project leaders Talia Stroud of the University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Tucker, of New York University.
In other words, it heavily impacted what the users saw, and how much they used the platforms.
“But we also know that changing the algorithm for even a few months isn’t likely to change people’s political attitudes,” they said, as measured by users’ answers on surveys after they took part in three-month-long experiments that altered how they received content.
The authors acknowledged this conclusion might be because the changes weren’t in place for long enough to make an impact, given that the United States has been growing more polarized for decades.
Nevertheless, “these findings challenge popular narratives blaming social media echo chambers for the problems of contemporary American democracy,” wrote the authors of one of the papers, published in Nature.
– ‘No silver bullet’ –
Facebook’s algorithm, which uses machine-learning to decide which posts rise to the top of users’ feeds based on their interests, has been accused of giving rise to “filter bubbles” and enabling the spread of misinformation.
Researchers recruited around 40,000 volunteers via invitations placed on their Facebook and Instagram feeds, and designed an experiment where one group was exposed to the normal algorithm, while the other saw posts listed from newest to oldest.
Facebook originally used a reverse chronological system and some observers have suggested that switching back to it will reduce social media’s harmful effects.
The team found that users in the chronological feed group spent around half the amount of time on Facebook and Instagram compared to the algorithm group.
On Facebook, those in the chronological group saw more content from moderate friends, as well as more sources with ideologically mixed audiences.
But the chronological feed also increased the amount of political and untrustworthy content seen by users.
Despite the differences, the changes did not cause detectable changes in measured political attitudes.
“The findings suggest that chronological feed is no silver bullet for issues such as political polarization,” said coauthor Jennifer Pan of Stanford.
– Meta welcomes findings –
In a second paper in Science, the same team researched the impact of reshared content, which constitutes more than a quarter of content that Facebook users see.
Suppressing reshares has been suggested as a means to control harmful viral content.
The team ran a controlled experiment in which a group of Facebook users saw no changes to their feeds, while another group had reshared content removed.
Removing reshares reduced the proportion of political content seen, resulting in reduced political knowledge — but again did not impact downstream political attitudes or behaviors.
A third paper, in Nature, probed the impact of content from “like-minded” users, pages, and groups in their feeds, which the researchers found constituted a majority of what the entire population of active adult Facebook users see in the US.
But in an experiment involving over 23,000 Facebook users, suppressing like-minded content once more had no impact on ideological extremity or belief in false claims.
A fourth paper, in Science, did however confirm extreme “ideological segregation” on Facebook, with politically conservative users more siloed in their news sources than liberals.
What’s more, 97 percent of political news URLs on Facebook rated as false by Meta’s third-party fact checking program — which AFP is part of — were seen by more conservatives than liberals.
Meta welcomed the overall findings.
They “add to a growing body of research showing there is little evidence that social media causes harmful… polarization or has any meaningful impact on key political attitudes, beliefs or behaviors,” said Nick Clegg, the company’s president of global affairs.
Google looks to take generative AI lead with Gemini
Google on Wednesday infused its Bard chatbot with a new-generation artificial intelligence model called Gemini, which it touts as being able to reason better than ChatGPT and other rivals.
The search engine juggernaut is aiming to take the generative AI lead from ChatGPT-maker OpenAI as that company deals with the aftermath of a boardroom coup that saw chief executive Sam Altman fired and then rehired within a matter of days.
Google has for years discreetly developed AI powers but was caught off guard when OpenAI late last year released ChatGPT and teamed up with Microsoft to make its capabilities available to users worldwide.
“This is incredible momentum, and yet, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a release.
“This new era of models represents one of the biggest science and engineering efforts we’ve undertaken as a company.”
It is the first AI model to outperform human experts in certain benchmarks involving problem solving, math, physics, history, law, medicine and ethics, Google DeepMind vice president of product Eli Collins said during a briefing.
A demonstration showed Gemini recognizing what it was shown, from a person acting out a “Matrix” movie scene to someone drawing a duck and then holding up a rubber duck.
Gemini commented on what it was shown, making comparisons, drawing conclusions, and offering suggestions.
Performance of an “Ultra” version of Gemini “far exceeds” that of other state-of-the-art models in 30 benchmark tests measuring capabilities such as image understanding or mathematical reasoning, according to Collins.
A “Pro” version of Gemini built into Bard is designed to handle a wide range of tasks. A “Nano” version is tailored for smartphones, coming first to Google’s top-of-the-line Pixel 8 handset.
Google raced out its own Bard chatbot earlier this year, continually updating the chatbot based on people’s feedback, according to Bard vice president Sissie Hsiao.
“All of that rapid innovation is bringing us to what we see as a truly transformative moment,” Hsiao said during the briefing.
“With Gemini, Bard is getting its biggest upgrade yet.”
– AI collaborator –
Bard will use Gemini for more advanced reasoning, planning, and understanding capabilities, a demonstration showed.
It will be available in English in more than 170 countries and territories, with more languages added soon, according to Hsiao.
Gemini-infused Bard will be expanded to be “multi-modal,” meaning it will be able to work with auditory and visual input as well as text prompts, executives said.
“With Gemini we are one step closer to our vision of bringing you the best AI collaborator in the world,” Hsiao said.
Gemini ramps up the quality of Bard’s performance, whether in writing poetry or computer code to shopping queries or research projects, according to Hsiao.
The “Ultra” version of Gemini designed to handle highly complex tasks will be released early next year, Google said.
“I’m in awe of what it’s capable of,” Collins said of Gemini.
“This is the start of a new era for us at Google as we continue to rapidly innovate and advance the model’s capabilities.”
Google in September integrated Gmail, YouTube and other tools into its Bard chatbot as tech giants seek to persuade users that generative AI is useful and not dangerous or just a fad.
Those capabilities closely match offerings from Microsoft that infuse its Office 365 apps with AI powers, though those come at an extra cost to customers and are not available through the chatbot on its search engine Bing.
The staying power of generative AI chatbots, once the initial excitement has faded, is yet to be confirmed.
Moreover, integration of the OpenAI-based chatbot into Microsoft’s search engine earlier this year failed to make an impact on Google’s overwhelming dominance of search.
Governments and tech companies however insist that generative AI is technology’s next big chapter and have ramped up spending on new products, research, and infrastructure.
EU proposes three-year delay on UK electric car tariffs
Brussels proposed Wednesday a three-year delay on tariffs on the sale of electric vehicles between Britain and the EU that was meant to kick in from January, in a major reversal of its previous position.
The European Commission said it now wants a one-off extension, until December 31, 2026, after the EU automotive industry raised concerns about the massive costs that would arise from a post-Brexit 10-percent tariff.
The commission’s extension proposal must formally be approved by the EU member states. EU leaders are to hold a regular summit in Brussels next week.
The commission had initially strongly opposed such an extension, despite industry’s pleas, requests from the British government and calls for pragmatism by EU lawmakers.
Its extension proposal, which also covers batteries, includes wording designed to make it legally impossible to put off tariffs beyond the December 2026 date.
“Today’s decision means that we skip an intermediate phase of somewhat strict rules of origin that would have applied from 2024 until the end of 2026,” Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.
“This removes the threat of tariffs on export of EU electric vehicles to the UK and vice versa on 1st January 2024.”
The change of stance was needed because of “circumstances not foreseen” when an EU-UK agreement regulating post-Brexit trade and ties was signed in 2020, Sefcovic said.
He cited higher energy prices spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, high inflation, and big subsidies China and the United States deploy to boost their electric-vehicle industries.
The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Associations (ACEA) and the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) welcomed the commission’s move and urged EU countries to endorse it.
The tariffs, ACEA said, would have cost the EU vehicle makers it represents 4.3 billion euros ($4.6 billion) over the next three years and caused them to lose market share to non-European competitors.
The extension would “allow UK and EU manufacturers to compete with the rest of the world and, crucially, give the European battery industry time to catch up,” Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said.
– ‘Cannot be repeated’ –
The European Union is particularly concerned about potentially unfair competition from cheaper Chinese electric vehicles. In October it formally launched an investigation into Beijing’s subsidies for car manufacturers.
Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen accused China in September of keeping the cost of Chinese electric cars “artificially low by huge state subsidies”.
Sefcovic said the commission’s proposal “supports the competitiveness of our industry and protect jobs in the European Union” and “it’s absolutely clear that this one-off extension cannot be repeated nor prolonged”.
Britain formally left the European Union in January 2020 then, during a transition period, sealed the post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the bloc which came into effect in 2021.
Under that deal, tariffs were to start on January 1, 2024, on vehicles that do not have at least 45 percent UK- or EU-made content, and with batteries that are at least 50-60 percent sourced from each of those territories.
Along with the extension proposal, the commission announced additional funding of up to three billion euros to boost the EU’s battery-manufacturing industry.
The EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said the proposal “provides much-needed predictability and stability to EU car- and battery-makers at a time of fierce global competitive pressure”.
Twitch to shut down in SKorea over ‘seriously’ high fees
US-based streaming platform Twitch said Wednesday it would stop its service in South Korea in February because of “seriously high” network costs, dealing a blow to millions of users in one of the heartlands of e-sports.
The Amazon-owned company said in a statement signed by CEO Dan Clancy that costs were 10 times higher than most other countries, making it impossible to continue operating.
South Korea allows internet service providers to charge data-heavy companies like Twitch extra fees, which has already led to a long dispute with Netflix.
Big telecom firms in Europe have pushed for a similar deal, which they call “fair share”, but an EU consultation concluded in October that the idea was not popular.
Twitch said it had tried to lower its costs by reducing the maximum video quality but it was still losing money and would pull out of the country on February 27.
“The cost of running Twitch in South Korea is currently seriously high,” said the statement.
– ‘Stellar player’ –
Twitch, acquired by Amazon in 2014 for close to $1 billion, gained significant traction among gamers in South Korea.
The firm does not publish user numbers but it was widely reported in 2021 to have six million users in South Korea, more than four percent of its global total.
The country is known for its passionate, competitive, and dedicated gaming community, as well as its megastar Faker — a gamer hailed as the Michael Jordan of e-sports.
“We would like to reiterate that this was a very difficult decision, and one that all of us at Twitch are deeply saddened by,” the company’s Wednesday statement said.
“South Korea has always been a stellar player in the global e-sports community and will continue to do so.”
Shares in South Korean video streaming service Afreeca TV, Twitch’s competitor, soared almost 30 percent in afternoon trading in Seoul.
Some of the country’s Twitch users were devastated by the news.
One streamer, yummy_2 said: “It feels like losing my job right now.”
– Biden vs Trump –
Netflix was the first major international firm to cry foul over South Korea’s rules on network fees, getting entangled in lawsuits with SK Broadband, one of South Korea’s biggest internet service providers.
However, the two firms announced in September they would drop the legal cases and would now instead “collaborate as partners for the future”.
While the usage fees are a boon to telecom companies, they are bitterly opposed by tech platforms around the world.
European lawmakers and digital rights activists also argue such an arrangement could break rules on net neutrality, whereby telecoms firms are barred from selling faster internet speeds to particular companies.
The issue has been at the heart of a years-long dispute in the United States with former President Donald Trump rolling back net neutrality rules and his successor Joe Biden struggling to restore them.
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