Facebook use may have helped Trump with some voters, report says

Trump used Facebook extensively during his last two presidential campaigns, amassing more than 34 million followers on his official Facebook page before being banned from the site in 2021. — New York Post via AP

Using Facebook in the lead-up to the US 2020 presidential election might have increased the chances of someone voting for Donald Trump, university researchers said in a study published Monday in the academic journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

As part of the study, the researchers asked nearly 19,900 Facebook and 15,600 Instagram users to stop using the platforms ahead of the 2020 election. The authors, led by Stanford University professors Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, found some evidence suggesting that people who used Facebook might have been more likely to vote for Trump. They noted that their finding fell “just short” of being statistically significant.

"So we need to take it with a grain of salt,” Gentzkow said in a statement. "But if it’s real, it’s big enough that it could impact the outcome of a close election.”

The report represents the largest-scale evidence to date on the role of Facebook and Instagram access in shaping political opinions and knowledge ahead of a presidential election. It’s part of a broader research effort aimed at studying the impact of social media on democracy. Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc agreed to give researchers from Stanford University, New York University and other academic institutions access to platform data and algorithms to conduct the work.

The researchers were careful to point out in the latest study that the findings were specific to the users studied, but they said the results are consistent with the general opinion that Trump’s campaign more effectively used Facebook than the Biden campaign did. The report comes as Biden and Trump are set to face off yet again in a November election. Social media companies including Meta, X and TikTok are fielding increasing pressure to moderate content on their platforms in the lead-up to the vote.

When asked for comment, a Meta spokesperson pointed to a part of the study that found deactivating your social media account didn’t have a significant effect on the perceived legitimacy of the 2020 election. Researchers noted that "these null results are important in light of the prominent challenges to election legitimacy that took place around the 2020 election, including Trump’s emphasis on potential fraud in the run-up to the election and the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement that followed it”.

The study published in PNAS found that using Facebook and Instagram had little to no effect on a person’s political leanings, their views of whether the election was legitimate, their opinions of opposing parties, or whether they voted. But using Facebook may have made people more likely to vote for Donald Trump, the researchers said. Instagram use didn’t result in the same effect on vote choice, the report shows.

The researchers warned in the study that their their findings on vote choice can’t be "extrapolated to the broader population without strong assumptions.”

The results worked to affirm previous studies published last year that, among other things, found that changing the sorting and types of stories that users saw in their news feeds and limiting re-sharing of posts didn’t change political attitudes. Despite that, Facebook has long been criticised for its perceived influence over elections. The social media site came under fire during the 2016 election for selling ads to Russian actors trying to sow discord among US voters and during the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection, which was organised in part on the platform.

Trump used Facebook extensively during his last two presidential campaigns, amassing more than 34 million followers on his official Facebook page before being banned from the site in 2021. After losing the 2020 US Presidential election, Trump began posting false claims about election-rigging on Facebook, which the company determined encouraged the Jan 6 insurrection. – Bloomberg

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