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Testing the Effects of Facebook Usage in an Ethnically Polarized Setting
Does social media usage lead to greater hostility toward ethnic outgroups? Our study in Bosnia and Herzegovina yields evidence that users who abstain from social media use report lower regard for ethnic outgroups than those who stayed active.
Ašimović, Nejla, Jonathan Nagler, Richard Bonneau, and Joshua A. Tucker. “Testing the Effects of Facebook Usage in an Ethnically Polarized Setting.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 25 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022819118
Jun 22, 2021
Area of Study
Despite the belief that social media is altering intergroup dynamics—bringing people closer or further alienating them from one another—the impact of social media on interethnic attitudes has yet to be rigorously evaluated, especially within areas with tenuous interethnic relations. We report results from a randomized controlled trial in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), exploring the effects of exposure to social media during 1 wk around genocide remembrance in July 2019 on a set of interethnic attitudes of Facebook users. We find evidence that, counter to preregistered expectations, people who deactivated their Facebook profiles report lower regard for ethnic outgroups than those who remained active. Moreover, we present additional evidence suggesting that this effect is likely conditional on the level of ethnic heterogeneity of respondents’ residence. We also extend the analysis to include measures of subjective well-being and knowledge of news. Here, we find that Facebook deactivation leads to suggestive improvements in subjective wellbeing and a decrease in knowledge of current events, replicating results from recent research in the United States in a very different context, thus increasing our confidence in the generalizability of these effects.
There is little research on social media’s impact on interethnic attitudes, despite the belief that social media is potentially changing intergroup dynamics by bringing people together or pushing them apart. By its nature, social media allows for direct access to individual voices that can be of either ethnic hatred or ethnic solidarity. While previous research shows a positive association between Facebook usage and bridging social capital, there is growing evidence that the way in which platforms’ algorithms deliver content may be encouraging echo chambers, online incivility, and hate speech — all of which contribute to polarization and further societal problems. This is problematic for politically fragile or ethnically polarized societies. So, does social media usage lead to greater ethnic outgroup hostility?
To answer this question, we conduct a randomized controlled trial in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one week around the Rembrance Day for the Srebrenica genocide in July 2019. During this experiment, participants are asked to deactivate their Facebook and abstain from social media, while the others continue with their normal social media use. At the end of the week, all participants complete an extensive survey. In doing so, we observe how interethnic attitudes of Facebook users are affected by exposure to social media.
Contrary to expectations, the trial yields evidence that people who deactivated their Facebook profiles report lower regard for ethnic outgroups than those who remained active — and this effect was more prevalent among people living in more ethnically homogenous areas. We also present evidence that Facebook deactivation leads to improvements in well-being and a decrease in current events knowledge.