Christopher Ferguson, PhD
Earlier this month, I began getting emails from students asking if I’d seen the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. Our family had discontinued Netflix for a bit but with the new Haunting of Bly Manor coming, it was time to renew anyway. So, I watched it. Overall, I found it slick but uninformative (no, there is no evidence social media is causing suicides to rise among teens, see Heffner et al., in press; Orben & Przybylski, 2019). Yet, if it wasn’t exactly science-based, I did think it managed a few good points, particularly toward the end. Namely: is social media contributing to our political and social polarization?
We’re living in the most disagreeable, emotionally charged time I can remember in my 49 years. I don’t think social media is the biggest part of that. But even as someone who is generally skeptical of most purported media effects, given the lack of evidence for their impact, I’ve started to wonder a bit about social media.
Granted some of this comes from just my own experience on social media (Twitter, in particular, can be a dark hole of despair). Frankly, we need more good, preregistered research. There is some initial data to suggest platforms such as Twitter can increase polarization (e.g., Garimella & Weber, 2017; Lee, Shin, & Hong (2018). We’ve been Charlie Brown with Lucy’s football enough times on media moral panics that we need to keep our heads, and our first call should be for more and preregistered research. But it’s an interesting question. We also need to discern if the issue is social media effects on individuals as opposed to platforms amplifying the most extreme voices in our society (I suspect the latter to be more salient.)
In the meantime, there are things we can do as professional individuals. I’ll note our former division president Joanne Broder, along with Don Grant, Sarah Domoff, and Paula Durlofsky, have been working tirelessly on a series of Digital Engagement Guidelines for Professionals (DIGP) which are quite thorough. Below, I offer a few thoughts of my own, simply based on reflection. I’ll note, I can’t claim to have always been the best at following them myself. They are aspirational and, as we each post to social media, perhaps can help us all be a positive rather than a negative voice.
Am I angry or emotional? When we’re angry (or upset) we tend to say things we later regret. This can be tricky on social media; where so much outrage is already generated, we may be tempted to feed into it. No matter what “side” we think we’re on, pumping more hate and anger into the world is unlikely to get anything but the same back in return. This advice comes straight from the DIGP.
Am I trying to convince or show how moral I am? It’s a normal human inclination to demonstrate our morality (what is sometimes called “virtue signaling”). But at its worst, social media can encourage us to do this at the expense of others. I think that’s why there seem to be so many fascists, communists, various -phobes and -ists, snowflakes, whatever on social media. Again, I’ll claim to be no angel, but increasingly I’m not sure that waving our fists at the other half of the country is helping. Perhaps we should consider, if our aim is to bring more people to “our side,” how can we best achieve this? I suspect, empathy, compassion, level-headedness, and sticking to data are most effective … as well as patience, understanding that human persuasion is often a frustrating, gradual process.
People rarely listen to us more after we call them a Jerk, Nazi, or Snowflake. This is a corollary to the above point. Let us all strive to be kind and professional even when we don’t receive the same courtesy in return. Have I failed at this? Absolutely. But I’m trying to be conscious to improve.
Assume our students, patients, Dean, and grandmother or grandfather are reading. It can be tempting to post hate and anger when we assume our audience is mainly anonymous lurkers on Twitter. But would we be embarrassed if our associates read it? Or are we setting a good example for students and patients?
Assume that outrageous meme is a Russian Bot. There’s plenty of stuff on social media that is designed to provoke and anger. Some of it produced by individuals for the lulz, some of it produced by foreign agents specifically for foster polarization. If we stop and consider … are we being manipulated here? … Perhaps that can help us not give the trolls the overwrought response that’s exactly what we’re looking for.
Observe the Thanksgiving Day rule. If we don’t like controversy, we should try to avoid discussing controversial topics like politics, religion, sexuality, etc., on Twitter. It’s very hard to have a reasonable conversation on social media as escalations and dog piles can come swift and fast unless we’re in a closed group dedicated to civil debate (I have one of these). Also, we should try not to be the person to escalate dialogue on a tough topic to Nazi accusations or ‘Unfriend me if you disagree!’ demands.
Remember Twitter isn’t real life. I suspect we (including politicians and corporations) give social media platforms and Twitter specifically, far too much influence, assuming that mob rule in these platforms reflects real-life concerns of the general public. It rarely does. Most people don’t use Twitter regularly, and those who do are not remotely representative of the general public.
Social media can be fun if used in a balanced and cautious and professional way. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be excellent outlets to market our work or inform the public. But there are lots of landmines as well, some potentially career-ending. If we find ourselves on a dark road it can be good to remember, there’s rarely harm in turning off social media for a few days and coming back once things have settled down.
Broder, J., Grant, D., Domoff, S., & Durlofsky, P. (in press). Digital Engagement Guidelines for Professionals.
Garimella, V., & Weber, I. (2017). A long-term analysis of polarization on Twitter. Proceedings of the Eleventh International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. Retrieved from: https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM17/paper/view/15592/14846
Heffner, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (in press). The longitudinal association between social-media use and depressive symptoms among adolescents and young adults: An empirical reply to Twenge et al. (2018). Clinical Psychological Science.
Lee, C., Shin, J., & Hong, A. (2018). Does social media use really make people politically polarized? Direct and indirect effects of social media use on political polarization in South Korea. Telematics and Informatics, 35, 245-254.
Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. (2019b). The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behavior; 3, 173-182.