September 6, 2014
For any number of reasons, more and more people are beginning to shun social media, but nevertheless, billions of people continue to depend on it for a “daily fix” of interaction, much of it done anonymously.
Increasingly, we are finding that, while aspects of that interaction, such as reconnecting with old friends and staying in touch with relatives, can be positive and productive, social media also has a dark side, and researchers are continuing to find out more about it.
For instance, so much of social media has done nothing to foster a robust and comprehensive debate about the political direction of our country.
In an interview with ABC News‘ Dianne Sawyer in 2010, on the occasion of Facebook gaining its 500 millionth member, its developer and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said this about how his site and social media in general made for better political discussion:
“Well, what I think it’s doing is giving everyone a voice, right? So, back, you know, a few generations ago, people didn’t have a way to share information and express their opinions efficiently to a lot of people. But now they do. Right now, with social networks and other tools on the internet, all of these 500 million people have a way to say what they’re thinking and have their voice be heard.”
Less, not more, debate
Yet, according to a newly released study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, that’s not the case at all:
Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.
Pew researchers focused on one primary issue that occurred recently: Revelations of widespread government surveillance on the civilian population from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. At the time, Pew surveyed the American people and found that they were divided; 44 percent said the release of classified information harms national security and the public interest, while 49 percent said it served the public interest.
Social media as peer pressure tool
The study made some notable observations:
- People were far less willing to discuss the Snowden story on social media than in person. In fact, more than eight in 10 surveyed said they were okay with discussing the case in person but only 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users wanted to discuss it on those platforms (and who could blame them, considering that one of Snowden’s many revelations was that the NSA and other government spy agencies routinely mined social media sites).
- Social media was no alternative discussion platform for those who did not want to talk about the Snowden story. Fourteen percent of those surveyed said they would not discuss the story in person, and of that number, only far fewer than 1 percent said they were willing to post something on social media.
- Personally and online, respondents said they were more willing to share views if they perceived that their audience would be in agreement. This is significant, because it represents the fact that, even in virtual communities, peer pressure is alive and well and influencing what people say and think.
- The same was true of Facebook users; if they thought that their friends would agree with them, they were generally more receptive to posting their opinion about the story on their Facebook page.
- In general, Facebook and Twitter users were less willing to share their opinions in a number of personal settings, and this was especially true “if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view,” Pew said.
Far less accurate picture of views
Not just social media, but the Internet in general has been held up as modern technology’s answer to giving voice to the voiceless. Social media sites have been used to plan protests and gain attention for specific causes, but as the Pew study reveals, such sites too often suppress, rather than encourage, thought and debate. That makes it a wonderful tool for propaganda, through manipulation of what users see and, importantly, don’t see. By changing their voice or self-moderating their opinions, debate does not flourish, and the public can be left with a far less accurate picture of how we really feel about certain issues.