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How Facebook polarized us during the Kavanaugh hearings

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The polarization of the American electorate predated Facebook's arrival on the scene. But a nagging q
 
October 5 · Issue #221 · View online
The Interface
The polarization of the American electorate predated Facebook’s arrival on the scene. But a nagging question about the social network has been whether its viral mechanics — and the viral mechanics on YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms — have accelerated the split between the left and the right.
Today we have two stories that examine that phenomenon. The first concerns the fight over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. At a time when the sharing of news articles on Facebook is in general decline, the wrenching battle over Kavanaugh has been a top performer on the site. And many of the top performing posts, reports Craig Silverman, are among the most partisan in nature:
Daily Wire’s top story about Kavanaugh confirmation was published Oct. 1 with the headline “Prosecutor Who Questioned Ford Shreds Her Case In Five-Page Memo.” It’s generated more than 205,000 engagements. The site also received just under 180,000 engagements for the story, “Bill Clinton Rape Accuser Juanita Broaddrick Crashes Kavanaugh Hearing, Slams Dems For ‘Biggest Double Standard,’”
Occupy Democrats’ top story about Kavanaugh-Ford is headlined “Matt Damon just DESTROYED Kavanaugh and Senate Republicans in hilarious SNL cold open.” It had just under 70,000 engagements. Another story about the Kavanaugh confirmation, “Bernie Sanders just demanded the FBI investigate five lies Kavanaugh told at his hearing,” generated over 44,000 engagements.
Silverman notes that more mainstream coverage, including from The New Yorker and CNN, outperformed these links. But the fight has thrown a lifeline to partisan publishers, who have struggled this year as Facebook ratcheted down the amount of news in the News Feed. It has replenished their email lists and generated new advertising revenues. And, in doing so, it has incentivized more polarized coverage in the future.
Meanwhile, Facebook Groups are becoming more polarized … thanks to a simple name change. Kevin Roose tweeted about the phenomenon earlier in the week: “One of the largest pro-Kavanaugh groups on FB was previously called "ISIS SUPPORT GROUP” and “WHO FARTED? !!!!” Now the Washington Post’s Tony Romm has written a full account:
The fluid nature of these groups illustrates how the social networking giant’s powerful tools for political and community organizing remain major risks for spreading misinformation and stoking unrest, especially as Facebook wages its war against inauthentic activity online and the 2018 election is just weeks away. Groups are at the heart of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s stated mission to ensure “online communities strengthen physical communities,” as he put it during a speech in 2017. But group owners can easily rename and refocus their groups, while keeping their original members – and their ability to push content into their daily feeds.
Facebook said in the last month it began displaying the two-year history of all groups’ name changes to improve transparency. The change offers “more information and insights about a Group, as well as increased accountability for Group admins,” said spokesman Andy Stone. With the Ford group, in particular, Facebook said late Thursday it is investigating its recent, whiplash revisions.
On one hand, the groups in question here are small, with fewer than 10,000 members between them. On the other, they show how efforts to promote polarization are evolving along with the platform. Making it easy to change the name of the group also made it easy to take a general-interest group like, uh, "WHO FARTED,” and turn it into conservative stronghold.
I imagine a Facebook employee might look at these two stories and respond: this is the biggest story in the United States right now. Of course it’s blowing up on social networks, and of course people are taking sides. But it’s still striking to see how fast, and how far, the shrillest of voices travel on the platform — and how a service meant to build community so often manifests itself as an engine for tribalism.

Democracy
Facebook's Joel Kaplan admits mistake on Kavanaugh at intense company meeting
UK cyber security agency backs Apple, Amazon China hack denials
Google CEO quietly met with military leaders at the Pentagon, seeking to smooth tensions over drone AI
Smaller outlets reduce, scrap Facebook promotion over new ad rules
The Last Jedi Russian troll study shows we still don’t know how to interpret speech online
Elsewhere
The Journalist Who Blew Open The Cambridge Analytica Scandal Threatened To Injunct Channel 4 News And Demanded They Hand Over Their Sources
Fake Facebook Profiles and Dating in Afghanistan
Teens Are Nostalgic For 2015 And They're Making Instagram Memes About It
Launches
Facebook Lite launches for iOS in Turkey
Takes
Introducing the Internet Bill of Rights
And finally ...
The Dads of Pinterest
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and weekend plans: casey@theverge.com.
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