Autism and Polarization: The Social Media Crisis

For several years now, some social media algorithms, especially Facebook‘s [1], have been the focus of controversy, due to their impact and responsibility in many contemporary socio-cultural phenomena, such as political [2] and ideological polarization, cultural homogenization [3], Fake News [4], Hate Speech [5] and outbreaks of racism and xenophobia.

In response to this phenomenon, algorithm designers have opted to ideologically standardize each user’s Feed [6]. Facebook even announced a new update for 2021 that reinforces this principle [7] and will continue to sanction informative content, which, eventually, may induce a false perception of reality on the part of its users, while polarization increases.

How is the content we consume on Social Media altering reality?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

Valentina is 25 years old, considers herself politically progressive, liberal and republican. She is a feminist and an openly declared lesbian, she is an active TikToker and Instagramer, that is, she publishes a lot of content on social media: Tik Tok and Instagram, which algorithms customize the content that Valentina consumes, which in most cases, deals with Feminism, LGTBI community rights, human rights, abortion, euthanasia and other liberal issues.

As she is exposed all the time to ideologically progressive content, Valentina has the perception that world has changed, that now “society is more open” and “respectful to individual rights“.

Rosa is a 60-year-old woman, she learned with great difficulty how to use Facebook and WhatsApp, two platforms she mainly uses to share religious content with her friends, so her cell phone is full of prayers, Eucharist and reflections. Rosa’s Facebook wall is composed mainly of conservative content.

Facebook’s algorithm mostly provides Rosa with information against abortion, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage and most of the posts Doña Rosa consumes state that “Homosexualism is a sin” and emphasizes the “urgency of recovering values and morals“.

Thanks to all the content that Rosa receives, she perceives that the world is regaining the right direction, that most of society is against what she and her religion consider to be sin and she is certain that her far-right candidate, who proposes a strict regime of restrictions, will win the next elections in an overwhelming way, since all the contacts she interacts with on the platforms, support him unconditionally and as she observes on her feed, very few people are against him or support other candidates.

Camilo is 19 years old; he considers himself a GAMER (“Gaming Fan“), he has never had Facebook, he only uses Twich, Reddit and TitkTok, video games have become an obsession and it is practically the only subject that interests him.

Camilo belongs to the generation that doesn’t watch TV, or listen to radio, instead he only consumes videos on Netflix and music on Spotify.

Camilo is also a Youtuber, i.e. he publishes content on Youtube, where he has been presenting video game tricks for more than 5 years, he has 2 million followers on this platform and receives about 3 thousand dollars a month in advertising, which is why he decided not to study a career.

Camilo is not politically interested in defending any cause, he just lives for the moment and hopes that no one interferes in his life.

Camilo is a virgin, he likes women, but at the last ComicCon he was disguised as one of the female characters of his favorite anime video game, which gives him a plus as an influencer and increase his followers and consequently, his economic income.

Camilo does not plan to vote in the elections.

Sergio Fernández Vizcarraga is a businessman who decided to venture into politics and marketed himself as an independent and centrist for the elections, without assuming a strong position on the most controversial issues, as recommended by his advisors based on the meetings, as an alternative to the “polarization of the country”.

Thanks to many alliances and political compromises, Sergio managed to win the elections with a very narrow margin over the “right-wing” and “left-wing” candidates, taking advantage of the attrition they had due to the continuous attacks from each other and their followers.

Rosa is convinced that the elections were a fraud, her far-right candidate was supposed to win by an overwhelming advantage, as evidenced on her Facebook feed where only information about her candidate appears. She is convinced that the leaders promoting the “Gender Ideology” financed by George Soros and Bill Gates, the same ones who are “introducing 5G chips in vaccines“, sabotaged and stole the elections.

Valentina is also outraged, the traditional political class allied with corrupt businessmen, placed a “puppet” candidate in power, stealing the elections from her progressive social democrat candidate with a left-wing.

Rosa and Valentina go out to the streets to march and protest. They meet face to face; Rosa’s banner says “No to gender ideology” and Valentina’s “Nobody messes with my ovaries“; they insult and attack each other; Valentina discovers to her surprise that “there are still many troglodytes in this world” and Rosa concludes that “the devil is loose in the street“.

Camilo, disguised as Sailor Moon, observes the crowd from the window of his house, which affects his live broadcast to collect donations on Twitch, while he plays Minecraft.

Camilo opens the door of his house and goes out to the street to ask Rosa, Valentina and the other marchers to be quiet. Rosa, outraged to see him disguised as a woman, affirms that this poor boy is a victim of “gender ideology”, although Camilo has no idea what she is talking about.


George Soros and Bill Gates have never heard of Fernandez. Moreover, they have no idea where the country where Rosa, Valentina and Camilo live is located.

The corrupt businessmen Valentina is mentioning, financed all the campaigns equally, even the one of her left candidate, because the only ideology they believe in is money and they make sure that no one interferes in their business.

An Algorithm Problem

Social media algorithms polarized and placed Camilo, Rosa and Valentina in ideological extremes.

None of them pretend to act maliciously but on the contrary have a lot in common: They seek affection, fight for their dreams, are passionate about what they do, are committed to their causes, seek to protect their loved ones, care for animals and nature, like to travel, appreciate the simple things in life, get excited with triumphs and like to share with their loved ones.

However, social media have turned them into ideological extremists of causes that do not admit extremism in their philosophical essence, but because of unscrupulous companies like Facebook, have turned polarization into a multimillion dollar business, making Rosa lose sight of the fact that the main message of Christianity is to love your neighbor, or Valentina forgets that respect for diversity includes those who think differently, or Camilo does not realize that there is a world out there, beyond video games.

Neither Valentina, Rosa nor Camilo are real people, but they represent average citizens of the second decade of the 21st century. Sergio Fernandez is not real either, but he could be any of the many vapid rulers in power.

But what does exist and is real, is the uncontrolled level of political polarization and cultural homogenization that social media, especially Facebook, is producing around the world, due to its algorithms, creating sufficient conditions for unnecessary conflicts.

Social Media and Polarization

It is only enough to ask what they have in common: The recent attack on the capitol in the United States[8], the Arab Spring[9], the vandalized social uprisings in Chile[10], the anti-austerity movement in Spain[11], the Brexit in the United Kingdom[12], the protests in Venezuela[13], Trump’s incendiary speech[14], the so-called cacerolazos or casserole in Colombia and Brazil[15], the anti-racial protests in the United States[16], the destruction of statues around the world[17], the protests against the confinement resulting from COVID-19[18], the mobilization of ultras groups for the destabilization of the United States[19] and the hate speech promoted by some religious leaders[20] Muslims or Christians[21], or of any creed.

Although it may seem impossible, all these phenomena from such opposite shores and with no apparent ideological connection between them, regardless of the validity of the linked causes, have a leading element in common: the massive use of Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp as dissemination platforms, as shown in the respective links underlying each of the above citations.

The Polarization of Facebook’s Algorithms

An article published by The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive“[22] and previously analyzed in another article, denounced that Facebook had evidence that its algorithms polarize and confront users, but its executives ruled out solutions as they considered that polarization significantly increases the use of the social network[23].

The report, which was the result of an internal audit, concluded that the social network’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to confrontation“[24]. This research emerged in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and its researchers determined that the social network’s algorithms were achieving the opposite effect of their original purpose: connecting the world [25].

If left unchecked, Facebook would feed users more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform” One of the audit reports concludes.

The report of the American media assures that the company decided to discourage the investigation by direct order of senior management, and that Facebook executives knew since 2018, from other studies, the polarizing nature of the algorithms used by the platform for content moderation and that “the configuration of these intentionally promotes division between people“.

Although the revelations made by The Wall Street Journal in its recent article seem to be novel, it is not the first time that the public opinion is aware of the issue, since a year ago, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes also wrote an opinion article in the New York Times, where he assured that Mark Zuckerberg‘s influence led to “sacrifice security and civility in exchange for clicks[26]“. Hughes went even further by proposing that Facebook should be dissolved, given the “uncontrollable power” of this company [27].

“Since Zuckerberg controls the majority of Facebook’s voting shares, the board functions “more like an advisory committee, thus allowing Zuckerberg to decide on his own the configuration of the algorithms behind Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, intentionally sacrificing security and civility in exchange for clicks” Chris Hughes in The New York Times [28].

As if the above were not enough, a BBC investigation revealed in 2014 that Facebook conducted an experiment with 700,000 users, without their consent, seeking to determine the “emotional contagion” between individuals. Thus, Facebook, in cooperation with scientists from Cornell and California universities (San Francisco, USA), concluded that emotional states can be communicated between individuals without the need to interact in person, information that it later used to refine its algorithms. [29].

Although Facebook appears in multiple journalistic and academic analyzes as the main responsible for global polarization, it is not the only culprit, since it has marked the path in the market, which is imitated in many aspects, from the perspective of algorithms, by other companies like Twitter [30], TikTok, among others.

The danger of punishing informational content

As a strategy to combat Fake News, Facebook announced for 2021 [31], a new algorithm that will sanction informative content even more (it has been sanctioning it since 2018), that is, the news published by traditional, alternative and emerging media will be viewed much less than the few ones that currently appears on users’ feeds, a decision that, although it may be favorable for reducing the impact of Fake News, will further increase autism and detachment from reality by users, who will have the content published by their friends and followers as their only source – since they are not exposed to the journalistic treatment of information by the media-, which is generally not verified information and therefore, promotes greater isolation of users, a factor that is enhanced by the already existing decline in the consumption of media on traditional platforms.

In Conclusion, social media algorithms are triggering a type of social autism, which could be affecting citizens’ perception of reality, while promoting ideological and political polarization, placing social stability at risk. In the same way, when journalistic content is sanctioned, citizens are not accessing verified and contrasted information, which unleashes a type of discursive hegemony, sufficient fuel to produce extremism and ideological fanaticism in the population.

Photo by: Edrece Stansberry on

[1] Technology blog: Tecnivoro.

[2] Article from The New York Times.

[3] CNN’s analysis of the lawsuit filed by the FTC against Facebook.

[4] Newspaper article on the new British authority.

[1] BBC article: The controversy over the emotional manipulation of Facebook

[2] Encyclopedic article on Political Polarization

[3] Article: What is Cultural Homogenization?

[4] IFJ article on Fake News

[5] Academic Article: Speeches of Hate, a spreading epidemic

[6] Brandwatch article on the Facebook Algorithm

[7] Forbes article on the New Facebook Algorithm for 2021

[8] Infbae article regarding the prior knowledge that I had Facebook of the attacks on the capitol

[9] Academic Article: Facebook and the Arab Spring

[10] Facebook and the protests in Chile

[11] Newspaper article on the Indignados in Spain

[12] BBC article on Facebook’s liability in Cambridge Analityc

[13] Infobae article on the protests in Venezuela called by Facebook

[14] Newspaper article on protests by Facebook employees for allowing Trump posts

[15] BBC article on cacerolazos in Colombia

[16] France 24 news item on the role of social networks during the protests in the USA

[17] Article about Influencer destroying statues to gain followers

[18] 20-minute newspaper article on protest events against confinement

[19] Gestió journalistic note about the Boogaloo Bois movement on Facebook

[20] Academic article: Disputes and evangelical plots in social networks

[21] BBC article: Evangelicals and the Coronavirus

[22] Complaint by The Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[23] Bussiness Insider newspaper article on the intentional polarization of Facebook

[24] Complaint by The Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s intentional intention to polarize

[25] Bussiness Insider newspaper article on the intentional polarization of Facebook

[26] Opinion piece by Chris Huges in The New York Times

[27] Press release from La República on Hughes’ opinion column

[28] Opinion piece by Chris Huges in The New York Times

[29] BBC article: The controversy over the emotional manipulation of Facebook

[30] Analysis of the Specialized Hypertext Blog on the Twitter algorithm

[31] Forbes article on the New Facebook Algorithm for 2021

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.