In fact, social media is structured in a way that actually prevents relational communication and the sharing of accurate information—and that encourages the opposite.
When we use social media, we’re communicating from behind a screen, where we can’t be seen, and often anonymously—two factors that diminish our empathy.
In addition, as Johann Hari explains in Stolen Focus, social media sites are actually structured to dysregulate us—to cause us to feel anger and fear. When we’re angry and fearful, we’re not only less empathic but our capacity for rational thinking and logical discourse is diminished.
Social rewards and shallow thinking
Social media platforms dysregulate us and drive false information in large part because they provide us with social rewards in the form of positive feedback.
As Yale University social psychologist William J. Brady points out, humans are highly sensitive to social reward. When we get positive feedback for posting something, we’re much more likely to post something similar again.
The posts that generate the most positive feedback are ones that trigger anger and moral outrage and that are untrue. As Max Fisher explains in Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts: The Age of Misinformation, “When misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.”
In a recent study, psychologists tracked thousands of Republican test participants who were shown the false headline “Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested with Suicide Vests.” Even though only 16 percent of the participants said they thought the headline was accurate, 51 percent said they would nevertheless share it.
When advocates get likes and shares for sharing posts that reflect in-bullying or false information, they’re encouraged to continue this behavior.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains, “When we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”
Social media sites are also structured in such a way that when we use them, our thinking becomes increasingly shallow, we’re more easily distracted, and we’re primed and prodded to take in and share nonrelational and inaccurate information.
Clickbait creates defensiveness and divisiveness
Consider the not uncommon practice of people using clickbait or other forms of sensationalist social media to attract people to their posts.
For example, imagine a scenario where an environmentalist hosts an interview with another environmentalist in which the two discuss the latter’s thoughts about outreach strategies and intermovement dynamics.
In order to attract more traffic to the site, the host titles the interview in a way that suggests the interviewee’s approach is more controversial than it actually is: “Environmental Legend Jess Lee and Climate Activist Robin Washington Face Off!”
This framing primes listeners to feel defensive and to feel they have to choose a side, leading to divisive thoughts and feelings that may not otherwise have arisen. It also attracts people who feed on controversy and who are likely to make derogatory comments and spread the message that the interviewee’s views are more divisive than they actually are. Contrary to popular belief, all press is not good press.
As Brené Brown, who’s arguably the world’s leading researcher on shame, points out, “Social media are the primary platforms” on which “we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.”
Using social media for good
To reap the benefits of social media (such as cultivating connection, allyship, and networking) while avoiding infighting, it’s important that we develop relational literacy so that we can tell the difference between relational and nonrelational communication.
We also need to learn to differentiate accurate from false information. Infighting is made possible in large part by the countless bystanders who provide a platform for bullying and other kinds of toxic behaviors. Much infighting could be prevented if each of us made a commitment not to like, post, or share any information that isn’t relational or that we’re not certain is true.