Social media is an illusion, and a trap

21 Sep 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 21 Sep 2022

Lots of people distrust social media and its effects on political discussions. Several different studies indicate different ways that Twitter, Facebook and the rest shape discourse - and some ways they maybe don’t.


“Why are online discussions about politics experienced as more hostile than offline discussions? A popular answer builds on the argument that human psychology is tailored for face-to-face interaction and, accordingly, people’s behavior changes for the worse in impersonal online discussions.”

So begins the abstract for a 2019 research paper (updated with more supporting evidence in 2021) looking at whether people are blunter, meaner and less understanding online than they are offline.

This is a plausible theory, and a popular one. It seems that few people think their day-to-day conversations with other people are as hot and bothered as political discussions we see online.

The paper - The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis, from researchers at Aarhus University – goes on to test the theory, which the academics label the mismatch hypothesis. Their answer is, perhaps, surprising.

They argued that “mismatches between human psychology and novel features of online communication environments” could change people’s behaviour and bias their perceptions - but found “little to no evidence” to support the mismatch hypothesis.

“Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline. Finally, we offer initial evidence that online discussions feel more hostile, in part, because the behavior of such individuals is more visible online than offline.”

According to this study, social media has given angry, aggressive people a megaphone, and let them in to the daily lives of others in a way that was not possible before the existence of mass online communication.

Joining in

Politics and policy are serious matters that shape the lives of everyone.

Talking about politics and policy is essential, especially in a democracy where, one way or another, we are all supposed to have not just a stake but a say in how things are run.

Ideally, dialogue and discussion should be insightful and educational and make us all better citizens who make better-informed choices.

However, per the study above, a bunch of toxic cranks and clowns dominate the space in a disproportionate way, poisoning the discourse.

But what happens next? What happens if you try to get involved with these discussions, or even immerse yourself in them?

Other studies highlight further pitfalls.

One such trap is that publicly stating an opinion or view makes us more likely to commit to that view, even when presented with evidence to suggest the initial opinion (or fact) was misguided.

So, if you tweet something and it turns out that thing was wrong, you might find it hard to accept your mistake simply because you’d already tweeted something different.

This isn’t an observation based on social media, per se, it concerns social effects observed almost a century ago, in some cases, and again in later studies on social behaviour.

Meanwhile, a 2014 paper suggested that access to huge amounts of information and insight available on social media might allow people to seem smarter but, by relying so much on copying others by rote, actually reduce individuals’ ability to think analytically.

In short: political discussions are dominated by narcissists and boors; saying something on social media can make us inflexible and resistant to new information; and hearing too many arguments from other people can hurt our ability to think for ourselves.


There is some good news, however. Sort of.

First of all, a lot of these findings stem from psychology research – and psychology is in crisis. Specifically, a replication crisis.

The Replication Crisis is an ongoing methodological problem (and potential catastrophe) for the entire academic field of psychology.

The central problem, which emerged around ten years ago, is that the results of many psychology studies and experiments have proved impossible to replicate elsewhere.

However, just because some studies look dubious means they all are. Psychology, as a discipline, remains important.

We should all have a great interest in how social media is twisting both our political discourse and ourselves. That means considering different theories with a certain dispassion, rather than reading one study and assuming it is gospel. Take psychological research with some salt (albeit the amount of salt can vary wildly between different studies, between a single crystal and an oceanful).

The other piece of good news is this: political debate on social media is, perhaps, quite niche.

A study of Twitter use in America finds that political polarisation on the social media platform is overstated and “the degree to which Twitter is political, has likely been overstated in the past.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that political Twitter isn’t a basket case – just that most people don’t find themselves in the middle of that particular cesspit.

Which, on the basis of some of these other studies, might be a good way to live.

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