Matthew Gentzkow’s Study on Facebook: What’s Not to Like?

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on October 8, 2021


Facebook has 2.3 billion monthly active users, and by 2016 the average user was spending nearly an hour per day on Facebook and its sister platforms. There may be no technology since television that has so dramatically reshaped the way we get information and spend our time.
   - Matthew Gentzkow, Professor of Economics at Stanford University


Earlier this week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about how Instagram and Facebook affect children. An excerpt from her testimony:


I saw that Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolved those conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization — and undermining societies around the world. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people. In other cases, their profit optimizing machine is generating self-harm and self-hate — especially for vulnerable groups, like teenage girls. These problems have been confirmed repeatedly by Facebook’s own internal research.


The rise of social media has engendered both optimism and concern. Initially, social platforms were commended for their potential to make communication and the sharing of information easier. More and more, however, the concerns about potential harms, from addiction to depression to political polarization, have become the dominant.


Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow is recognized as a thought leader in the field of media economics; his research includes studies of the effect of increased digitization on the press, the market forces that shape the creation of new forms of media, and links between media and levels of political polarization. Professor Gentzkow has explored the effects of social media on political polarization (see TAP posts, “Social Media and Political Polarization” and “Life Outside the Bubble”) political polarization as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic (see TAP post, “Did COVID-19 Bring Americans Together?”), as well as the impact of misinformation (see TAP posts, “Did Fake News Help Trump Win?”).


In “Is Digital Media Pulling Us Apart?,” Professor Gentzkow shares findings from a study with colleagues Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, and Sarah Eichmeyer that looks at the welfare impacts of Facebook. The study recruited 2,743 Facebook users in the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections, and elicited their willingness to deactivate their Facebook accounts for four weeks.


The resulting paper from this study, “The Welfare Effects of Social Media” (American Economic Review, March 2020), offers insights on the way Facebook affects a range of individual and social welfare measures. These include the extent to which time on Facebook substitutes for alternative online and offline activities, measures of news knowledge, awareness of misinformation, and how individuals feel about themselves after using Facebook or being off the social media site for four weeks.


Key Takeaways from “Is Digital Media Pulling Us Apart?

Note, this article was originally published on TAP in May, 2020.

  • Being off Facebook freed up an average of one hour to spend on other activities.
    • Our findings show that Facebook does not substitute for other digital activities - if anything, people spend less time on other social media and digital platforms when their Facebook accounts are deactivated. Instead, Facebook time comes entirely from offline activities including face-to-face socializing and solitary activities like watching TV.
  • Our next set of findings focuses on news knowledge and political outcomes.
    • Deactivating Facebook caused a significant reduction in total news consumption, and significantly reduced news knowledge and political engagement.
    • At the same time, the deactivation group ended up significantly less polarized by a range of measures, including their views on policy issues such as immigration and policing.
  • In terms of well-being, we find that Facebook deactivation causes small but significant increases in self-reported individual life satisfaction and happiness, and significant decreases in self-reported levels of anxiety.
  • Finally, we measured whether deactivation affected people’s demand for Facebook after the study was over.
    • As the experiment ended, participants assigned to the deactivation group reported planning to use Facebook much less in the future.
    • Several weeks later, the treatment group’s reported usage of the Facebook mobile app was about 11 minutes (22 percent) lower than in control.

Read the full article on TAP: “Is Digital Media Pulling Us Apart? by Matthew Gentzkow.


Further Reading: