Social Media Risks: Upside-Down
Much of the furor of today’s news and political world seems like it’s “the other side’s” fault. American Democrats decry the social media misinformation propagated by far-right groups, while American Republicans see an increasingly assertive progressive leftist arm overreaching while laying waste to previous social norms. Both sides wildly disagree on politics and culture. Both sides agree, with some differences, that social media is both a powerful agent for change and a problem when wielded incorrectly. All are fed up.
What is increasingly clear is that such suspicion across the political aisle is problematic. Political disagreement is becoming increasingly personal. It has become commonplace for Americans to openly discuss not hiring individuals who disagree with them politically. As we work on reducing discrimination in our economics, we are re-creating it elsewhere.
The risk dynamics of social media may be a contributor to its effects on political life. Consider the risks involved in posting on social media. There’s no question that there is significant risk, as professional careers are routinely impacted by social media missteps, whether recent or many years back, and people are jailed for intemperate tweets. But what are the risk-related upsides and downsides to posting on social media, particularly with political content, and do they contribute to the dynamic?
Posting a controversial thought on social media clearly has major downside risks. One can tweet on the runway and be fired by the time you land. One can gain a following quickly, but one can as easily lose that following, or be banned by the social media provider with little recourse to regain your lost investment in time and audience building.
By contrast, the risks of “piling on” to a criticism of a post, with sentiment that already has some support, are low and potentially negative. There’s little downside risk to being the tenth poster to condemn a tweet others don’t like, and even less risk in being the 100th.
In fact, the incentives for such posters are to outdo peers in levels of condemnation and vitriol. One rarely earns plaudits for “I agree.” But one can earn more following for comments that increase the snark level or the perceived shaming of the original post.
In social media today, almost all the incentives — both for posters and for social media networks themselves — are aligned with polarization and with vilification of the other side. Add in confirmation bias for the general readership, and you get armed camps of followers who have no incentive to hear contrary views, and every incentive to tear into them.
This creates issues at the societal and at the personal level. Polarization increases politically, making it difficult to run a productive government. And that lack of government effectiveness leads to more social media unrest, and more polarization, even at the local political level. Social media can also cause personal issues. Research indicates that many users of social media become more isolated and depressed, and some users have even been driven to suicide by the effects of social media posts directed at them.
Changing the risk dynamic for social media would seem to be worth looking into. But how to start? We’ll consider that in future posts.