Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are increasingly in the media alongside headlines about politics, world events and local news. These platforms are great for keeping in touch with loved ones, and theoretically they give an equal voice to everyone… but with the recent polarization of thought and intolerance of disparate points of view, learning and creative interaction may be suppressed. Bottom Line Personal spoke with sociology professor Damon Centola, PhD, about how to avoid social media’s pitfalls…

THE PROBLEM

We primarily engage with social media when we want to feel part of a group and have a sense of community, which can create “tribal loyalty”…and/or when we are searching for information to better understand our world and make decisions. Downside: If tribal loyalty is too powerful, we may see people outside our group as a threat and be resistant to different viewpoints. Additionally, since social-media platforms make money from your activity on their sites, they present you with information that reinforces your tribal connections, keeping you on the sites for longer by causing your brain to release pleasurable chemicals.

GET OUT OF YOUR ECHO CHAMBER

It’s important to understand the virtual “echo chamber” that you are in and expand that beyond the people and outlets whose ideas mirror your own. But that’s not always so easy. My research into how ideas spread shows that it’s overly simplistic to assume that new information is accepted in a merely viral way—that people “catch” a new idea. I equate ideas to “contagions”—simple contagions comport with your preexisting biases and are easy for you to adopt…complex contagions challenge your world views. To adopt a complex contagion is to accept a belief that contradicts your previous assumptions— and that is a tall order. Example: Simply reading a blog written by someone from a different political party is unlikely to change your stance on the issues.

To test this, we showed NASA’s recent data on Arctic sea ice to 2,400 Democrats and Republicans. Overwhelmingly, the Democrats came away with the belief that the sea ice was drastically diminishing—the accepted view among climate scientists and most Democrats. But nearly half of the Republicans concluded that the ice was recovering nicely. For Republicans, acceptance of climate change is a complex contagion, so merely exposing them to contrary data was not sufficient to change their minds. Good news: After a few rounds of conversation, both Democrats and Republicans came to agree on an interpretation of the climate change data that approached 90% accuracy.This seems to suggest that the primary problem is the echo chamber. But echo chambers, by themselves, are not polarizing. In numerous experiments, my colleagues and I found that echo chambers make one’s views more extreme only when the social networks in the echo chambers exhibited certain “influencer” patterns. If we changed the network pattern in a controlled-study echo chamber to make it more “egalitarian”— in which everyone is considered equal—then people emerged from it with more tempered and moderate views than when they entered.

TROUBLE WITH INFLUENCERS

We’ve all heard of social-media influencers— people with lots of followers. That community of followers can essentially be an echo chamber. Just as in real life, powerful voices and their followers can steer a conversation in a particular direction and shut out modulating >> voices, which destroys civil discourse. When there are no influencers to tip the scales and everyone is considered equal—an egalitarian structure—the conversation moves toward a more accurate and less extreme understanding of a problem, thanks to “the wisdom of crowds.” Researchers have replicated this in the lab—when two opposing groups in an echo chamber are both egalitarian in structure, they move toward common understanding. But when each group is centered around its own influencer, then the groups grow further apart, becoming increasingly polarized.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

While you may not be able to change how social-media companies run their businesses, you can take steps to avoid being part of the problem… Seek out information beyond your world. Read and watch information posted by people whose opinions differ from yours.

Recognize that you’re being manipulated. Social-media companies have highly trained data scientists using algorithms to offer up content that feeds your sense of tribal loyalty. Pay attention to what you are being shown. Are the graphics or videos meant to be “otherhating,” such as unflattering pictures of “your side’s” political opposers? Don’t share or encourage such things. Block senders of inflammatory content…and remove yourself from those groups.

Make your networks more egalitarian. When you see someone playing the role of influencer in a social-media group, you can choose to leave the conversation or bring in other voices. Example: If you notice that a Facebook discussion is being dominated by a handful of people, reach out to one of the quieter voices, even if it’s someone you don’t know, and say, “I’d love to hear more from you on this.” Or tag someone who is not even in the thread and say, “Curious to know your thoughts.”

At times, we all have failed to say something on social media for fear of being ridiculed or attacked. But the broader and more inclusive the conversation, the better we are, collectively, at weeding out misinformation.