The Ugly Side of Social Media Exposed

Does social media encourage the worst in human nature?

Having spent the last decade working in social media, I’ve seen a lot of bad behavior. From nasty Facebook comments to people berating each other in forums, I’ve brushed it off by telling myself that passionate people are more likely to express themselves online. Middle-of-the-road people don’t bother.

A recent study in Science has me questioning whether I’ve been too optimistic all these years. Over the last decade on Twitter, the study found that falsehoods in news were much more likely to spread than accurate news, and spread more quickly. Even more depressing, authors found that humans—not bots—were more likely to share the falsehoods.

I recently led a social listening project that found something similar: inaccurate information spread farther online than the accurate information on the topic. Focus groups we held later confirmed the results: many people believe the inaccurate information to be true.

So what do we do when false information is shared and believed? Is there a way we can lessen this? Or is everything hopeless?

Social Media’s Impact
I see little room for optimism in Twitter and Facebook, particularly in light of yesterday’s news around Facebook’s chief information security officer leaving and the privacy violations from Cambridge Analytica.

In an effort widely suspected to be a result of its impact on the elections, in January, Facebook announced changes to its algorithm that give greater emphasis to family and friends over pages. But, it will prioritize content with high “active” engagement, like comments and shares. While this is likely to reduce false news spread by pages, it’s not likely to help once people start to share the content among friends. And the comments likely to generate the most responses may be those that are the most divisive.

Twitter, even more, is leaning in to the inherent challenges of news sharing. It announced last week that it is building algorithmically curated timelines for big news events. These will feature both news outlets and non-news professionals in the top of users’ feeds. This new feature may help it compete with Facebook, but is a potential landmine for falsehoods.

Facebook and Twitter are caught in a tough spot: Do they give people what they want (real-time news), or what will have the least negative impact on society? The more we’re encouraged by social media to share news, the more false narratives we are going to see, the Science study suggests.

Hope for the Future
Is it all doom and gloom? Not entirely. We’re not going to see Facebook and Twitter move away from news-sharing—whatever its impact on society. But, there are a couple of things that give me hope.

  • A growing emphasis on news literacy. Our younger generations are growing up with the Internet as the backbone of their lives. They have a stronger understanding of how it can be manipulated, and are on higher alert.
  • A growing understanding of the impact social networks have on society. Studies like the Science one are only a starting point for our understanding that these channels aren’t neutral. Facebook and Twitter will improve, if for no reason than to reduce bad press, which erodes users’ trust and drops stock prices.

For marketers like myself, who share accurate messages among a sea of false messages people are primed to share, we must step up our game. We must stop assuming people will care more about our messages because we’re a “trusted” source. We must start treating our messages like they are in a fierce competition to be heard. Because they are. We need stronger, user-centric websites, stronger copy, better graphics, higher ad spends. This isn’t going to be easy, but it’s our only option for being heard.

What are your thoughts on the Science study? Tweet me at @elzeig and Hager Sharp at @hagersharp.

Emily Zeigenfuse, M.P.H.
Senior Digital Strategist

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