The role of social media in political discourse has been the topic of intense scholarly and public debate. Politicians and commentators from all sides allege that Twitter’s algorithms amplify their opponents’ voices, or silence theirs. Policy makers and researchers have thus called for increased transparency on how algorithms influence exposure to political content on the platform. Based on a massive-scale experiment involving millions of Twitter users, a fine-grained analysis of political parties in seven countries, and 6.2 million news articles shared in the United States, this study carries out the most comprehensive audit of an algorithmic recommender system and its effects on political content. Results unveil that the political right enjoys higher amplification compared to the political left.
Content on Twitter’s home timeline is selected and ordered by personalization algorithms. By consistently ranking certain content higher, these algorithms may amplify some messages while reducing the visibility of others. There’s been intense public and scholarly debate about the possibility that some political groups benefit more from algorithmic amplification than others. We provide quantitative evidence from a long-running, massive-scale randomized experiment on the Twitter platform that committed a randomized control group including nearly 2 million daily active accounts to a reverse-chronological content feed free of algorithmic personalization. We present two sets of findings. First, we studied tweets by elected legislators from major political parties in seven countries. Our results reveal a remarkably consistent trend: In six out of seven countries studied, the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left. Consistent with this overall trend, our second set of findings studying the US media landscape revealed that algorithmic amplification favors right-leaning news sources. We further looked at whether algorithms amplify far-left and far-right political groups more than moderate ones; contrary to prevailing public belief, we did not find evidence to support this hypothesis. We hope our findings will contribute to an evidence-based debate on the role personalization algorithms play in shaping political content consumption.
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