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A Deactivation Experiment: Temporary Facebook Deactivation Reduces Fake News Belief

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
23rd May 2024
A Deactivation Experiment: Temporary Facebook Deactivation Reduces Fake News Belief
Taking a break from Facebook reduces believing misinformation (Getty)

Deactivating Facebook for a few weeks can diminish belief in fake news. The largest study on social media deactivation to date has discovered that taking a break from Facebook not only decreases users' political engagement but also reduces their likelihood of believing misinformation

The Effects of Facebook and Instagram on the 2020 Election: A Deactivation Experiment

The new study, published on Monday in the journal PNAS, is the work of more than 30 academics from U.S. universities and Meta researchers. It is part of the macro study, which began to be published last summer in the magazines Science and Nature.

Facebook invited 10.6 million users to participate in the study. Out of this number, only 19,857 individuals completed the experiment, which included a series of surveys. Participants who deactivated their accounts for six weeks were compensated with $150. Meanwhile, on Instagram, Meta invited 2.6 million users, resulting in 15,585 participants.

A supporting image within the article body
A screenshot of the published study (PNAS)

Before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, over 35,000 Facebook and Instagram users agreed to participate in an experiment. 27% of the randomly selected group were paid to deactivate their accounts for six weeks, while the rest only disconnected for one week. The objective was to analyze the effects of disconnecting from two of the biggest social media networks during the most intense weeks of the U.S. political calendar.

The results showed that not much changed, except for one significant detail: the group that deactivated Facebook but not Instagram was less likely to believe misinformation circulating online. However, their political participation, particularly online, also decreased.

The study's Major Findings

Stanford University professor Matthew Gentzkow, one of the authors of the article, highlights two main findings from the PNAS study, saying, “First, stopping using Facebook and Instagram in the final stretch of the election had little or no effect on political opinions, their negative opinions about opposing parties, or beliefs about complaints of electoral fraud. Second, stopping using Facebook does affect people’s knowledge and beliefs. Those who went off Facebook responded worse to news tests, but they were also less likely to believe widespread misinformation, suggesting that the platform may be an important channel for both true and fake news,” he says.

Although the result is not entirely clear, Gentzkow finds the finding quite surprising: “Previous research has shown that exposure to misinformation is often quite low for most people, so I was really surprised to see this effect, which was large enough to be marginally detectable,” he says.

Aside from being part of an unprecedented macro study using internal Meta data, this work is also the largest ever conducted on social media deactivation. The sample size is ten times larger than in any previous experiment. However, the authors acknowledge the study's limitations in measuring the real impact of a network like Facebook in democracies.

“This study has the same problem as the previous ones,” says David García, a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, who commented on the summer 2023 articles in Nature. “It is only able to experiment with individuals who are within a society where many other people continue to use Facebook and Instagram normally. When we talk about the Facebook effect, we think about what society would be like without Facebook compared to what it is like with Facebook, not what the people who do not use the network are like compared to those who do use it,” García clarifies.

The experiment explains doubts about whether Instagram is in the same league as Facebook. It turned out that Facebook likely remains the platform with the most significant impact on political outcomes.

In addition, the study finds that users who took a six-week break from Facebook became more cautious about the political information they saw on both Facebook and Instagram. This heightened awareness may stem from their time away and realizing the prevalence of low-quality or inaccurate content they had been exposed to.

Despite decreased online political participation among those who disconnected from Facebook, voter intention remained unchanged, indicating that reduced online engagement did not lead to fewer voters at the polls. Deactivating Instagram and Facebook also had no impact on polarization, perceived election legitimacy, or candidate preference.

Facebook Deactivation Decreased Trump Favorability in 2020

Researchers sought to understand Facebook's significance to Donald Trump. While the study did not definitively indicate that the platform aided the former U.S. president, the results, though statistically insignificant, suggest a link between deactivation and participants' voting behavior. According to the article, “Deactivation decreased Trump favorability, decreased turnout among Republicans and increased turnout among Democrats.” 

A supporting image within the article body
A figure presents the effects of deactivation on our eight prespecified primary outcome variables.

Researcher David García suggests that the study's findings on Trump's favorability are noteworthy. Despite not meeting the scientists' pre-specified significance level, García believes the evidence is significant. He notes that had the study assumed Facebook deactivation lowered support for Trump, it would have met the criteria. García emphasizes that while the effect may seem minor given the vast data, it holds significance considering the typically narrow margins in U.S. elections.

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