Woman smiling and looking at her phone. Her face is not visible, and red notification icons float above her phone.

Things You Should Know But Don’t: The Influence of Social Media (Part 2)

Posted August 2, 2021

Previously, we discussed the nature of social media and its influences on behavior. If you haven’t read the first part of this series, I highly recommend you do so first and then come back to read this one.

By now, I’m sure you realize that social media can be a powerful tool used against you. As I discussed in the first blog of this series, the emotions that people tend to associate with being online are not positive ones. They include sadness, anxiety, and anger. I would like to specifically home in on anger since it is a noticeably prevalent response trigger on the internet.

Since the early days of the internet, there has been a concept called “trolling” where people purposefully try to incite anger in a person or community. While it is a best practice to ignore people who do this since their goal is often to incite ridicule of their targets in the reactions they get, it’s not easy to remain quite when you, your friends, or issues you care about are under attack.  So what happens when this evolves into something more serious and more insidious?

Politics is a hot topic online and almost always guaranteed to make one or both sides of the political spectrum angry. During the recent 2020 election in the US, the misuse of Facebook to spread false information about the election was rampant. The culprit? The answer is far more complicated than just blaming the people who posted the original misinformation (though, they certainly bear a good deal of the blame). The algorithm that Facebook was using at the time was also a huge factor in how it spread misinformation unchecked. At the time, there was no true “quality assurance” in the algorithm that looked for reputable news sources in posts. As you can imagine, the more controversial, highly partisan, and sometimes flagrantly false news stories rose to the top as people interacted with them, often in outrage. Some allege this information was used purposefully to attempt to manipulate people’s emotions and, ultimately, the election results. That’s admittedly difficult thing to prove.  But it is also hard to rule out with certainty that some users may have made posts with that exact intent. Whether they succeeded remains a mystery shrouded in speculation.  That speculation, in turn, feeds the anger.  And so the cycle continues, splitting otherwise reasonable people apart because they are unable to check their emotions when they are so social media dependent.

While some people who blindly repeat misinformation they read on social media do so in true ignorance, that is not a clear conclusion with regard to those who create it. No doubt many do so deliberately with ill intent.  Far too many.  Others can’t help themselves in posting opinions based on false information that they state as fact when it is not.  Others create it solely with the goal of lying to control people. After all, people don’t typically fact-check while scrolling through social media, and content creators know this.

But it gets worse.  As people are becoming more aware and rejecting content, the techniques of manipulation are also advancing. A while back, I wrote about deepfakes on this blog. Recently, I saw deepfakes again making headlines in the mainstream media as people spread faked and edited videos of President Biden. While people might be less willing to fall for fake news articles these days, videos present a different story. As they say, seeing is believing.

It’s easy for this type of misinformation to spiral out of control once it takes hold. People begin to seek out news sources that support their views and, in turn, continue the cycle of spreading misleading or false information. Their posts and comments generate engagement, both positive and negative.  That part of a person’s brain that seeks attention and validation becomes addicted to posting without regard to conventional norms.

So, how do you break out of this cycle?

The first step is recognizing that you might be part of the problem. If your online experience starts to become an angry echo chamber, it’s likely that the algorithm has picked up on the kind of content you want to see and is prioritizing it for you.

But there are some actionable measures you can take. First, limit the amount of social media accounts you have overall. If you find yourself constantly flipping between multitudes of apps, you’re only giving the algorithms more chances to learn about you and, in turn, influence you. If you need more than one or two platforms, your next best option is to limit the amount of time you spend on those accounts to only a few hours a day. Most phones have built-in systems that can help you manage this by blocking apps during certain times of day or only allowing access to them for a set period of time. Browser extensions can block social media sites when you’re working or doing personal projects. You can also block push notifications from apps, which will help keep the addiction to social media at bay by preventing those periodic and random bursts of dopamine that click bait causes.

Most importantly, take the time to research information before you spread it. Be responsible.  If it is something that’s making headlines, there are likely going to be other people talking about it. Be skeptical of news stories where you can only find a single source. Things are easily taken out of context or completely falsified- not just articles, but screenshots, videos, and even voices can be faked these days. It is best to not rely solely on social media for news.

Remember, you alone can control your personal experience with social media. You can’t control how other people use it, but you can always disengage and go back to the offline world. The surest way to make sure you’re not being controlled or influenced by an app is to not use it at all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *