Link recommendation algorithms and dynamics of polarization in online social networks

Fernando P. Santos, Yphtach Lelkes, Simon A. Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


The level of antagonism between political groups has risen in the past years. Supporters of a given party increasingly dislike members of the opposing group and avoid intergroup interactions, leading to homophilic social networks. While new connections offline are driven largely by human decisions, new connections on online social platforms are intermediated by link recommendation algorithms, e.g., “People you may know” or “Whom to follow” suggestions. The long-term impacts of link recommendation in polarization are unclear, particularly as exposure to opposing viewpoints has a dual effect: Connections with out-group members can lead to opinion convergence and prevent group polarization or further separate opinions. Here, we provide a complex adaptive–systems perspective on the effects of link recommendation algorithms. While several models justify polarization through rewiring based on opinion similarity, here we explain it through rewiring grounded in structural similarity—defined as similarity based on network properties. We observe that preferentially establishing links with structurally similar nodes (i.e., sharing many neighbors) results in network topologies that are amenable to opinion polarization. Hence, polarization occurs not because of a desire to shield oneself from disagreeable attitudes but, instead, due to the creation of inadvertent echo chambers. When networks are composed of nodes that react differently to out-group contacts, either converging or polarizing, we find that connecting structurally dissimilar nodes moderates opinions. Overall, our study sheds light on the impacts of social-network algorithms and unveils avenues to steer dynamics of radicalization and polarization in online social networks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2102141118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 14 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Complex systems
  • Link recommendation
  • Opinion dynamics
  • Polarization
  • Social networks


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