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Social Media and the Magical Mirror

Apps like Facebook and Twitter are the mirrors that nobody wants to look at.

Key points

  • Mirrors induce self-focused awareness, which can be distressing.
  • Social media apps are mirrors that reveal aspects of ourselves we'd rather not see.
  • Social media reveals, rather than causes, political polarization.
 Andre Mouton/Unsplash
Source: Andre Mouton/Unsplash

In my last post, we talked about the psychology of social media use and mental health. I made the case that social media doesn’t directly cause distress or unhappiness, but our beliefs about social media might, and this is due to a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is important to understand given the weight that social media has in our collective consciousness and our discourse.

In the wake of the leaked Facebook documents and testimony from “whistleblower” Frances Haugen, a lot of public-facing commentary has focused not only on mental health but also on political polarization. The general sentiment seems to be that Facebook (and other social media companies such as Twitter) manipulate emotions through algorithmic microtargeting in order to stir up partisan animosity, sow discord on a wide array of topics, and ultimately generate huge profits through the mass production of misinformation. Plenty of intelligent folks — even employees and executives at these tech companies — are alleging a direct causal link between these apps and sociopolitical dysfunction.

I think this sentiment is wholly misguided and deeply ignorant about human psychology. I am heartened to see more scientists who empirically measure online behavior speaking out publicly against these fallacious ideas. For instance, Michael Bang Petersen studies online political hostility. He recently wrote an important and refreshing piece summarizing this research, noting that the Internet doesn’t transform otherwise mild-mannered, critically thinking citizens into gullible lunatics. Rather, some social media users knowingly share misinformation (both online and offline) because they believe it helps them score points for their political tribe and in order to boost their social status. We know this in part based on research showing how online fact-checking prompts effectively reduce users’ beliefs in false information but do not reduce users’ active sharing of false information (e.g., retweeting).

People are also motivated to share hostile political sentiments and conspiracy theories because of a “need for chaos.” These folks may feel socially ostracized, and their attention-grabbing behavior stems from wanting to “burn down” the mainstream political establishment. In addition, folks who tend to be hostile in online discussions also tend to behave the same way in offline discussions, and they are motivated by “status seeking.” But, before the Internet, those everyday interactions were mostly private. Now, they’re in full view for the public through the devices we carry around in our pockets all day. That makes it seem as if social media is causing these problems. But it’s actually just revealing these problems.

Let’s switch gears for a moment. Long before the social media age, scientists began studying the effects of self-focused attention, which happens when you see a photo of yourself or when you look into the mirror. This can cause distress if the person you see in your reflection is different from the person you are striving to be. Psychologists refer to this as a discrepancy between your actual and ideal self-image. Perhaps you see yourself as inferior based on standards for health, success, or character ethics. For some people, this distress can prompt extra motivation for self-improvement. If you want to be healthier, maybe you’ll eat nutritious foods and exercise. But for other people, their strategy is to withdraw. They sometimes resort to abusing alcohol or other drugs, disordered eating, and other self-defeating behaviors. This is part of a failed coping mechanism as people try to reduce self-focused attention.

 maratius78/Pixabay
Source: maratius78/Pixabay

I think social media acts in a similar way for society at large. Apps like Facebook and Twitter are part of an Internet mirror. They reflect and display all the nasty elements in our culture (e.g., misinformation, hostility) that we’d rather not see. But instead of striving toward improvement, such as being more compassionate and engaging in positive outreach toward others, we’re withdrawing, doubling down on bad habits, and blaming the mirrors for our negative feelings. Social media is showing us who we really are, and we don’t like what we see. Maybe this is why people have been proposing increasingly stringent regulations on social media companies. It’s part of an escapist mentality.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that social media usage is not the direct cause of political polarization and conflict comes from international data. Of course, Americans aren’t the only ones who use Facebook and Twitter. Folks in Germany, Australia, and Norway do too. But in those countries, polarization is decreasing. In the words of Ezra Klein, “One theory this lets us reject is that polarization is a byproduct of internet penetration or digital media usage. Internet usage has risen fastest in countries with falling polarization, and much of the run-up in US polarization predates digital media and is concentrated among older populations with more analogue news habits.” Social media isn’t causing our polarization and dysfunction. Rather, it's revealing our polarization and dysfunction. Algorithms aren’t the problem. The problem is us. Perhaps we should be grateful to have these apps at our disposal for people to share their tendencies so publicly. This gives us all greater insight into what’s wrong in our society so that we can creatively find solutions to such problems.

In times of distress, I often turn to my favorite mythologies as a source for inspiration and hope. I am reminded of a powerful scene in The Lord of the Rings, when the wise and powerful character Galadriel presents a magical liquid mirror to Frodo. Frodo, who is essentially tasked with saving the world from extinction, is uneasy. Here is part of their exchange in the novel (emphasis added):

“Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them...."

Frodo asks Galadriel whether he should look in the mirror, and Galadriel responds:

“I do not counsel you one way or the other.... You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous."

While it may seem like a stretch to connect social media to Galadriel’s magical mirror, I would suggest some strong parallels. Social media presents us with a potentially infinite set of possibilities: some past, some present, some truth, some fiction, and many prospects for the future depending on how we respond. Contrary to popular belief, social media does not give us absolute or objective content that causes a specific psychological response type in its users. Human minds are much more complicated than that. When we see painful or disturbing things through the Internet, we should be vigilant and view this as an opportunity to create a better future. Our mirrors are not the enemy, but they may reveal the enemy inside ourselves, and they can also be utilized effectively for self-improvement.

References

Bor, A., Osmundsen, M., Rasmussen, S. H. R., Bechmann, A., & Petersen, M. B. (2020). "Fact-checking" Videos Reduce Belief in but Not the Sharing of 'Fake News' on Twitter." PsyArXiv.

Bor, A., & Petersen, M. B. (2019). The psychology of online political hostility: A comprehensive, cross-national test of the mismatch hypothesis. American Political Science Review.

Duval, T. S., Duval, V. H., & Mulilis, J. P. (1992). Effects of self-focus, discrepancy between self and standard, and outcome expectancy favorability on the tendency to match self to standard or to withdraw. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 340.

Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A Theory of Objective Self-Awareness. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Heatherton, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 86.

Hull, J. G., Levenson, R. W., Young, R. D., & Sher, K. J. (1983). Self-awareness-reducing effects of alcohol consumption. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(3), 461.

Petersen, M. B., Osmundsen, M., & Arceneaux, K. (2020). The “need for chaos” and motivations to share hostile political rumors. OSF.

Phillips, A. G., & Silvia, P. J. (2005). Self-awareness and the emotional consequences of self-discrepancies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 703-713.

Silvia, P. J., & Duval, T. S. (2001). Objective self-awareness theory: Recent progress and enduring problems. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 230-241.

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