Social Media in Society: A Positive or Negative Force?
I teach a college-level introductory sociology course where we discuss the functional role of mass media. Talcott Parsons’ functional perspective espouses that society is comprised of interrelated parts in order to promote solidarity and stability. Therefore, the functional role of mass media is to teach and reinforce the norms, values, and belief systems of a society in order to further social solidarity. From a functional lens, social media, a type of mass media platform that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information between its users, which had been dismissed as a fad back in 2006, has had a functional, and arguably positive, effect on society in recent years by empowering its citizens toward solidarity through collective action. Social media is now a platform that brings social justice issues to the forefront of the American discourse, and arguably, has helped rectify persistent inequities. To this end, social media has been a place where social movements of different forms, and their messages of empowerment through collective action, are solidified.
One way that social media facilitates social movements’ message of empowerment through collective action is through grassroots online fundraising. For example, as a result of a tweet tweeted during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, online donors donated money to people who had student-loan and past-due medical bills. Another method in which social media empowers its users toward collective activism is through the use of hashtags, which then could be retweeted on Twitter. For example, in the article #SayHerName: a case of intersectional social media activism, Melissa Brown and her colleagues argue that #SayHerName, which has been retweeted many times over, is used to raise consciousness about the deaths of Black women, especially Black transgender women. As the data from the article demonstrates, hashtags, such as #SayHerName, can be used to bring awareness, and, in turn, attempt to rectify systemic injustices that affect hyper marginalized groups whose lived experiences have often been neglected by mainstream media.
Despite these positive impacts of social media, a first-year student in my sociology course asked me if I believed that social media was harmful to modern society. Given the importance of this question, I wanted to dedicate some time to answering it here in detail.
General Societal Effects of Social Media: The Pervasive Nature of Social Media
While social media was considered as a passing trend by researchers just a little less than a decade ago, social media has proliferated into mainstream society. Data from Pew Research Center show that 5% of the American adult population used social media in 2005, as compared to 72% of the public today. They also found that as social media usage increases so does the user base. In 2005, the few who used social media in America were young adults, but the user rates among older adults have also increased in recent years. In addition to the change in age among users of social media, the daily usage of social media sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, has also increased. Data from Pew Research Center show that roughly 75% of users visit Facebook and 60% of users visit Instagram at least once per day.
People use social media for different reasons beyond keeping connections with friends and relatives who live far away. Increasingly social media will be used to complete daily tasks, especially in the field of commerce. For example, as of 2019, Facebook is developing a cryptocurrency system called Libra, which, some argue, will soon go mainstream with help from major banks. This is not surprising as social media, such as Facebook, is already changing the way we pay. Currently, Facebook users can pay other users through Facebook messenger. In addition to commerce, people use social media to keep up with the latest developments in the United States and abroad. Social media, specifically, has made information more accessible to consumers. This is evident with Twitter, which is a social media platform where individuals and organizations can share ideas, thoughts, and information with their followers.
Negative Effects of Social Media on Society: Social Media and the Proliferation and Consumption of Sensationalized (Clickbait) Content
While social media can be a platform to empower its citizens toward collective action, social media has also had a negative effect on society in recent years through the proliferation and consumption of sensationalized content. In fact, in the article The Road to Digital Unfreedom: Three Painful Truths About Social Media, Ronald Delbert, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has argued that social media proliferates attention- grabbing, often emotionally-driven and divisive material, rather than multi-facetted content that present multiple viewpoints. What Delbert is describing here is often known as clickbait. The article Misleading Online Content: Recognizing Clickbait as “False News” defines clickbait as content whose main purpose is to attract readers in by producing headlines that are often sensational and scandalous.
It can be argued that social media websites proliferate clickbait because social media has become so pervasive in our society that we often turn to sites on social media to satisfy our impulsive curiosity to get more information about, and react to, shocking events that are unfolding before our eyes. In fact, a sensationalized article written about Malia Obama garnered readership from well-known celebrities and commentators, who then posted their equally provocative reactions on their social media pages for their followers to react to. Therefore, clickbait content is rampant on social media because it often exaggerates and scandalizes quotidian events, and turns these every-day events into the unspeakable, which satisfies our impulsive desire to get information about, and react to, the abominable. However, since clickbait content privileges itself on shocking content, rather than a principled approach to presenting pressing current issues, Delbert argues that the proliferation and the consumption of provocative content on social media is a breeding ground for individuals in positions of authority to create confusion and ignorance among the citizenry.
Perspective on Power: The Intersection Between Authority and Misinformation on Social Media
Steven Lukes, political theorist and the author of Power a Radical View, and Charles Lindbloom, the author of Policy Making Process, would probably agree with Ronald Delbert’s view on the societal effects of social media. If we use Steven Lukes’ perspective on power, which has its framework based on Karl Marx’s conflict perspective, we find that social media facilitates misinformation. According to Steven Lukes, individuals in positions of authority can use ideology to control the narrative by exercising considerable control over what issues people choose to care about and the degree of which they care about these issues. According to Charles Lindbloom, individuals in positions of authority can also use their power to divert attention and misinform the people about their actual circumstances. Social media is often used as a means for individuals in positions of authority to put out misinformation. Misinforming the people, which, in turn, could lead to confusion and ignorance among its citizenry can prove to be destructive. This was on full display during the 2020 presidential election where Trump and his followers spread misinformation, which, arguably, led to the insurrection on the Capitol in January.
Teaching the Importance of Evidence Based Research: Fighting the Negative Societal Effects of Social Media
Given the current pandemic and the recent presidential election, my student’s question points to a bigger issue on how we fight the negative societal effects of social media. While, Trump may be voted out of office, it is likely that there will be other individuals in positions of authority who will spread misinformation on social media which will affect the fabric of American democracy and future elections. I believe that teaching college-aged students, who, according to the Pew Research Center, are the primary users of social media, the importance of evidence-based research is a way to fight misinformation on social media.
The concept of evidence-based research, which is grounded in the field of healthcare, encourages us to use sound research, rather than opinion, to make decisions. In practice, evidence-based research means that we must rely on reputable, often peer-reviewed, studies published in scientific journals to guide our decision making process. In fact, a recent study conducted by Gordon Pennycook on fighting misinformation found that people with an increase in science knowledge and an inclination for accuracy had a better time weeding out false information about Covid-19 and had an inclination not to share misinformation on social media.
While evidence-based research is primarily discussed in the field of healthcare, it can be applied to other disciplines, especially in the social sciences. In addition to teaching the college level introductory sociology course, I teach a research methods course where I have students analyze secondary data to better understand what makes information both valid and reliable. Students in my research methods course are taught to recognize signs that the information they found can be systematically verified as a trustworthy source. They are taught the importance and the signs of peer reviewed and fact-checked research. Moreover, they are taught data science methodologies, such as the process of replication and using the right instrument to ensure validity, that advances verified, and trustworthy, knowledge. I use a simple example to illustrate my point on validity: you would not measure temperature using a ruler. I often ask my students if the research can be replicated and if the same or similar results can be generated. I also teach them about the importance of sample sizes, stressing that the larger the sample size the better.
As an applied sociologist, I put theory into practice. I have students in my research methods courses generate a research paper based on a review of peer-reviewed studies and data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative database. On the whole, my students successfully complete the assignment. They are able to synthesize and use peer-reviewed studies and data from the General Social Survey to support their arguments. By making students apply their knowledge of evidence-based research, it is my hope that they will be able to rely on evidence-based research to critically analyze the truth about the articles they may come across on social media.
Conclusion: How Evidence-Based Research Can Make Social Media a Better Place
In sum, what I wished I had said in response to my student’s question on social media and its negative effects was that social media doesn’t have to be harmful to modern society. Social media can be a great place where we can show solidarity in times of need. While social media can be a place where misinformation is spread, we can teach current and future generations of college students the importance of evidence-based research practices as a means to filter out and not share misinformation on social media, which will hopefully make social media a better place.
Tom Chiang Jr., is an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Rowan University. He is also affiliated with the Criminal Justice Department at the California State University, Stanislaus.