How is social media dictating our opinions?

With all the “connecting” we seem to be doing on a daily basis, and at time several times each hour; there is a school of thought that views social media as making humans less sociable, not only when it comes to face-to-face interaction but also for online interaction. If you look at your browsing history, the preloaded apps on your phone, or even what tabs are open on your computer, there is some form of social media present.

Whether you are more inclined to using Facebook, or Twitter is more your speed, there are social media networks to suit everyone. We rely on social media to give us the inside scoop on what is going on in the world, as well as what people are saying about current events. We are more connected than ever before, and it’s slowly breaking down our relationships and rational thought.

But, what impact does this type of behaviour truly have on society? How is social media dictating our opinions? According to Johannesburg-based psychologist Dylan Ramsay, it is – and a lot more than we give credit for.

With all the “connecting” we seem to be doing on a daily basis, and at time several times each hour; there is a school of thought that views social media as making humans less sociable.

The Rise of Social Media

Over the past 10 years, social media has exploded from a university chat room to a global distraction that we tap into on a regular basis. With the promise of connecting millions through an internet connection, comes the opportunity to connect with others who may or may not share your views.

We’ve seen how quickly a trend can encompass the internet with clever hashtags and opinionated views. We base our success, popularity, social standing around how many likes we can accumulate, how often we are shared across the internet.

However, what happens when people disagree with your opinion? What if you disagree with theirs? It’s easy to unfriend and block someone who doesn’t agree with you and you’re back to the safety of the social media bubble you’re creating for yourself, where everyone else seems to be on the same page as you are, anyway.

How Does It Work?

It’s true that there are algorithms that are used to only show you what you’re interested in seeing on any given social media site. Think about it, you like cats and bikes and luxury homes and that is what you’re always seeing on your newsfeed. The same applies to opinions, political or otherwise. Social media acts as a major drive in how attitudes are shaped and often induces a shift in opinions. This kind of online peer pressure forces an individual to “pick a side”, and steers all of their future posts in that direction.

How we think is easily influenced by external forces that come from media peer pressure. This system moves from diversity to global consensus as this pressure increases, that shifts the outcome of direct interactions between anyone who has opposing opinions.

The Groupthink Flaw

Ramsay compares this new concept to an old social psychological idea – Groupthink. Although the social media rise is a relatively new aspect of our lives, Groupthink has been used for years to adequately describe how we react in a group. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in a group of people where their desire for harmony and conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

For instance, you agree with Bob about e-tolls being a great way to spend extra money each month (even though you really don’t think it is a good idea at all). But because Bob is the head honcho in your little circle, you don’t dare deviate from the general opinion.
In other words, if you are part of a group, you will instinctively aim to minimise conflict in their social circle, and reach a unified decision without upsetting the apple cart with conflicting opinions.

It is this conflict-reluctance that also could drive you to totally remove yourself from outside influences, like unfriending someone who disagrees with you. This mentality has led to ousting anyone who you might deem “weaker” due to their opinions, simply because you don’t want your opinion bubble burst.
In the same way, your loyalty to the group may lead to you avoiding controversy altogether. In this way you may lose your individuality and independent thinking without even realising it!

This mindset brings about the illusion of invulnerability, which is the inflated certainty that your opinions are right. The “in group” mentality that overrates its own decision-making abilities and underrates the abilities of anyone who opposes the collective opinion of the group. More importantly, this delusion of self-importance can also lead to dehumanising anyone who goes against the group, much like being back in high school. So we’re basically still in high school and you’re still trying to be part of the “in” crowd.

Folding Under Pressure

Because you’re a human being, you want to be accepted by your group of peers, irrespective of whether the group is conservative or liberal. You gravitate toward anyone who shares the views you can identify with. This mentality of caving under pressure is something you develop as an adolescent.

The teenage years are characterised by the start of the development of abstract thought in the brain, which explains the sultry, stroppy realities of being a teen, and embraces everything from identity exploration to questionable dressing to listening to ugly music and choosing very particular cliques to mix with. Do you outgrow this need for collective conformity? Mostly, no, according to Ramsay.

Controversy vs Critical Thinking

The internet has made finding information a lot trickier than you may think. With the focus being on page views and viral posts, there is a fine line between what truth is and what is sensationalised. When you react to something online, you may easily confuse controversy with critical thinking, and you think you have this magnificent platform that allows you to take your “freedom of speech” to entirely new heights online.

The scourge of likes and comments feeds a new form of vanity, which may make you hunger for popularity and make you believe your opinion actually matters. You post your opinions for thousands of people to see, and focus more on what you get out of their interaction than what the information is giving to anyone else. You might not realise this, but in doing this, you’re allowing social media to create little narcissists out of you.

The question you need to ask yourself now is simple: are you allowing social media to lead your opinions? We do so much connecting online, that it seems like personal interaction is a thing of the past. It doesn’t have to be though, not if you switch off the tech and step outside.

Go back to how life was before the internet, before we could categorise our views into tidy, little tabs and engage with only those that we agree with. Re-discover the joys of speaking to people in person. Isn’t it a liberating idea though? Being able to take control of your socialising without the aid of social media. Give it a try, you might just love the results!