Twitter’s Algorithm: Amplifying Anger, Animosity, and Affective Polarization






As social media continues to have a significant influence on public opinion, understanding the impact of the machine learning algorithms that filter and curate content is crucial. However, existing studies have yielded inconsistent results, potentially due to limitations such as reliance on observational methods, use of simulated rather than real users, restriction to specific types of content, or internal access requirements that may create conflicts of interest. To overcome these issues, we conducted a pre-registered controlled experiment on Twitter’s algorithm without internal access. The key to our design was to, for a large group of active Twitter users, simultaneously collect (a) the tweets the personalized algorithm shows, and (b) the tweets the user would have seen if they were just shown the latest tweets from people they follow; we then surveyed users about both sets of tweets in a random order.
Our results indicate that the algorithm amplifies emotional content, and especially those tweets that express anger and out-group animosity. Furthermore, political tweets from the algorithm lead readers to perceive their political in-group more positively and their political out-group more negatively. Interestingly, while readers generally say they prefer tweets curated by the algorithm, they are less likely to prefer algorithm-selected political tweets. Overall, our study provides important insights into the impact of social media ranking algorithms, with implications for shaping public discourse and democratic engagement.




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