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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Do Search Algorithms Endanger Democracy? An Experimental Investigation of Algorithm Effects on Political Polarization

  • Author(s): Cho, J
  • Ahmed, S
  • Hilbert, M
  • Liu, B
  • Luu, J
  • et al.

© 2020, © 2020 Broadcast Education Association. This study examines algorithm effects on user opinion, utilizing a real-world recommender algorithm of a highly popular video-sharing platform, YouTube. We experimentally manipulate user search/watch history by our custom programming. A controlled laboratory experiment is then conducted to examine whether exposure to algorithmically recommended content reinforces and polarizes political opinions. Results suggest that political self-reinforcement, as indicated by the political emotion-ideology alignment, and affective polarization are heightened by political videos–selected by the YouTube recommender algorithm–based on participants’ own search preferences. Suggestions for how to reduce algorithm-induced political polarization and implications of algorithmic personalization for democracy are discussed.

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