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How Social Media Distorts Our Perceptions of Groups.

We know that groups are internally diverse. For any group you care to pick out (Brexit supporters, feminists, tea drinkers), we know intellectually that they will disagree among themselves about a great deal. When people identify as a group member, they may feel pressure to conform to the group view, but there are countervailing pressures in the other direction which limit the effects of group conformity. Disputes internal to groups are often as – or more – heated than those between them.

But social media, I suspect, leads us to see group members as more alike – and as worse – than they are actually are. Take this for example. On the Fourth of July, NPR tweeted out the entire US Declaration of Independence. Some Trump supporters saw the tweets as an attack on Trump, apparently seeing the declaration of a right to overthrow a tyrannical government as a call for his overthrow (initially, at least, they seemed not to realize that the words came from the Declaration). The episode is amusing, and because it is amusing it has received a lot of coverage. It went viral on social media, especially (I bet) among those people who are strongly anti-Trump. Similarly, a racist joke by a Tory councillor recently went viral after she made it on Facebook.

These things go viral for a reason. They have the kind of properties – such as arousing emotional response – that make stories memorable and more likely to be repeated. Of course, most of the tweets of most people aren’t memorable. They aren’t spectacularly ignorant or egregiously racist or sexist. The result is that what tends to fill up our screens is not representative of most of the material that is produced.

That’s a good thing in many ways. We want our attention directed to what is worthwhile. And worthwhile things, often, stand out from the ordinary in some way. Most people aren’t very funny. Those people who are funny are also more likely to produce content that goes viral, and that’s a good thing for those of us who value humor. Similarly, intelligent comments often have an edge over unintelligent ones in the competition for attention.

But the fact that attention is biased toward some kind of content and away from other kinds has bad consequences when it leads to a distorted perception of group members. Some people might get the impression that, say, all Tories are racists (and pretty stupid, too – too stupid to filter themselves).

Some people  may be tempted to say that as a matter of fact, all Tories are racist. I doubt very much that’s true, even if it is true that certain attitudes are found more readily in some groups than others. In any case, the problem is symmetrical. Would those on the left be happy to regard James Hodgkinson, the Bernie Sanders support who shot and seriously wounded a Republican congressman, as typical of the left? That is how he’s been portrayed on social media. The most disturbing or disturbed, the most violent, the least well informed people who identify with or can plausibly be identified as a member of a particular group have their doings and remarks splashed all over the social media pages of people who are opposed to that group.

How do we protect ourselves against this? Awareness that the examples that go viral tend not to be typical is important, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome a tendency to misrepresent our opponents. It is not enough to remind ourselves that the examples we see most often are unlikely to be typical, because nonconscious processes are influenced by systematic exposure to examples. Our diet of examples will tend, for instance, to influence our perception of the views of others via the representativeness heuristic.

I am not opposed to partisanship. I am unconvinced that we have an obligation to expose ourselves to a balanced diet of political opinions. But we should refrain from sharing and even reading those many stories – like those with which I started – featuring the ill-informed and offensive opinions of ordinary people on the ‘other side’. In a country the size of the US or the UK, hundreds of people say silly things every day. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, or focus on it. Let their ill-informed rants die the death they deserve, rather than amplify them.


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3 Comment on this post

  1. Social media provide a unique insight into what the majority of the population actually thinks. That was already evident in the 1990’s, even before the current ‘social media’ developed, at least in countries with high internet usage. Developed countries had majority internet access by the early 2000’s, and mobile apps subsequently allowed near-universal adult access to social media, even in many developing countries.

    That is a sharp contrast with the opportunities of about two generations ago, when politics was simply the behaviour of the political elite, and was covered by media with limited access to the majority. Researchers ought to be grateful for the vast mountain of data now available, but instead they are often uncomfortable with what it shows.

    I used social media posts, in my recent comments here on the Charlie Gard case, to identify some ideological themes circulating among his supporters. By and large you won’t find these covered in the mainstream media, but that does not mean they don’t exist, or have no support. And that’s true in so many cases. In western democracies, there is a political class which includes academics and the media, comprising at most 5% of the population. They also write mainstream political science and political journalism, and in doing so, they describe themselves, not the other 95% of the population. The social media allow those people tell their own story, unpleasant as it may often sound to the elite.

    Social media can therefore be good indicators of political trends, such as the rise of populism. If you want an upcoming example, look at the Twitter account ArchitecturalRevival, and click on its follower list, for an insight into the sudden rise of neo-traditionalism on the alt-right. This emergent trend has been picked up by CityLab, but is slow to reach the mainstream media, let alone political science.

    The strategy that Neil Levy advocates, namely to ignore non-mainstream or non-banal content, is socially and politically contra-productive. He is paradoxically advocating a ‘bubble strategy’, although the bubble effect is often cited as an inherent flaw of social media, by critics. It is true that social media carry a huge volume of non-controversial banal content, some of it institutionalised (e.g cat accounts). However we can’t take that as an indication of mass political apathy and ideological indifference. If we want to understand what’s going on in western societies, then we need to read, view and listen to “ill-informed and offensive opinions”.

  2. I think that social media can help people to lump “others” into group more easily – for better or for worse. I also think it makes it much easier for people to stick to their own comfort zone and distance themselves from “other.” I’m not really sure how to fix that, but it strikes me that it would be a good platform for breaking across barriers – if only we could figure out how to get people off the walls and out in the middle of the floor to dance 😉

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