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Facebook Friendships Based on Assumptions

New research finds people tend to assume their Facebook friends agree with their political views — and they’re wrong much more often than they realize.
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Even before its official release, The Social Network has been criticized for presenting a largely fictionalized version of the founding of Facebook. Some company executives have lamented that, after seeing the film, many people will believe things that aren’t necessarily true.

This criticism is somewhat ironic, given that social networks — online or in person — aren’t known for their rigorous vetting of shared information. The latest evidence: Newly published research finds a lot of people make inaccurate assumptions about their Facebook friends.

“Friends disagree more than they think they do,” a Yahoo! Research team led by Sharad Goel reports in the Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology. “In particular, friends are typically unaware of their disagreement, even when they say they discuss the topic.”

Facebook users tend to infer the opinions of their online chums, “in part by relying on stereotypes of their friends, and in part by projecting their own views,” the researchers write. While this assumption-based thinking works most of the time, it also means people are often clueless about the true opinions of others.

Goel and his colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 Facebook users over four months in 2008. They were asked yes or no questions about their own attitudes, and the views of one or more of their friends. While some lighthearted questions were included, such as whether you (or your friend) prefer wine or beer, most dealt with serious political or social topics, including support for universal health care and whether one’s sympathies lie more with the Palestinians or Israelis.

Data was compiled for 900 individuals, focusing on two factors: Do friends tend to hold the same opinions? And how do one’s self-reported opinions compare with the views ascribed to him or her by a friend?

“On average, friends agreed with each other 75 percent of the time, whereas randomly matched pairs agreed only 63 percent of the time,” the researchers report. So like does attract like — but only three-quarters of the time, which is less than we imagine.

Study participants holding majority views (which, in this sample, meant left-leaning political views) “typically believe that 84 percent of their friends agree with them — a 9 percent bump over actual agreement,” the researchers report.

Those holding minority views realize their opinions are not as widely shared, but their misperception of their friends is even larger: They “typically believe that 70 percent of their friends agree with them — a 12 percent increase over actual agreement.”

All this implies that users of social networks “do not seem to base their perceptions of their friends’ views on issue-specific discussions, but rather on some combination of their own opinions (projection) and of general knowledge about their friends (stereotyping).”

These results “can be read both in a positive and negative light,” the researchers note. On the plus side, social network members “are probably surrounded by a greater diversity of opinions than is sometimes claimed.” But this mix of views has little impact when it goes unnoticed and unacknowledged.

Their tentative conclusion is that social network friends “generally fail to talk about politics, and that when they do, they simply do not learn much from their conversations about each other’s views.” If this is indeed true, they add, “the extent to which peers influence each other’s political attitudes may be less than is sometimes claimed.”

As is the extent to which social networking sites lead to meaningful interaction.