In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict there has been much outrage and jubilation, much anger and happiness, much screaming and shouting, both through voice and through words. In a column in yesterday’s Politico, television host Joe Scarborough notes with great dismay the “hyperbolic” discussions post-Zimmerman acquittal. I am not here to add to the vitriol on either side. I am here to talk about the middle. Where has it been and why has it gone the way of the dodo bird?
In the last few elections there has been much talk about the middle class, the voters in the middle often referred to as independent voters, the Middle East, Middle Kingdoms and so on. But if you ask me, the middle is becoming akin to the average waist size of a teenage model: non-existent. And we have social media to blame for that. Don’t get me wrong, the traditional media bears blame here as well. More specifically, traditional media bears the blame for the erosion of the “middle” realm. But social media basically put the nail in its coffin. This is not a rant against social media. This is an observation of social media’s psychological impact on our modern-day discourse.
Like many curious, informed individuals out there, I go to the Huffington Post, CNN or other so-called news websites, not so much to read the articles but to read the comments from fellow readers. Well, actually, they are not peers in the sense that they are fellow readers. They are posters. As posters, especially on Huffington Post, they have “fans”. People who read articles and comment on them have fans. Really? Really! You can get fandom through posting your reactions to an article. Sure, it is something of a democratic process. Before, when we read an article in the New York Times, Time or Newsweek, we had to write a letter to the editor to comment on an article and more likely than not it wouldn’t be printed. So, now our voices can be heard both collectively and individually in real time. We can weigh in on every type of article from the totally mundane (i.e. “Kourtney jealous of Scott spending time with Kim”) to the most pressing issues of our day (i.e. Snowden and the NSA leak, or race relations). And note, I said pressing issues of the day and not of our time, because we most definitely have short attention spans and most issues are not retained in our collective consciousness for more than one week, if that. But these individuals who have fans are so admired because they are frequent posters, no? To develop a large fanbase as a frequent commentator, I imagine one would have to stake out and establish a certain, tone, belief and attitude profile. That act of establishment, I would argue, would have to entail the repeated use of key catch phrases and voicing of a consistent set of messages. If Lady gaga became a folk singer, a whole lot of fans would disappear, would they not? Albert Einstein noted that a key sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Ask yourself this, what do you think happens when one repeatedly states one’s opinions, day in and day out, across a variety of social media outlets?
The George Zimmerman trial and verdict, as we know, was and will continue to be the focus of many online discussions. Extreme positions proliferate on both sides. And note, it has indeed become “both sides”; meaning two ideological perspectives. I have barely read a single post that was in the middle, cautioning against extremism. And of course, many would instantly argue that there is no middle ground–there is either right or wrong. Within minutes of the Zimmerman verdict being read, it seemed like there were already 1,000 comments on CNN’s facebook page. Many of said comments written in ALL CAPS to emphatically (scream) mark their point.
Before social media and the advent of the “all caps” literary style, there was what psychologists and social science researchers referred to as the spiral of silence. This so-called spiral theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of rejection, ridicule and isolation. Basically the fear of being stigmatized leads to the silencing of one’s opinions. It took mass action to go up against a majority opinion. However, note the phrase of “perceive their opinion…”. The assessment of one’s social environment may not always be in tune with reality. Social media comes along and voila all of a sudden you are surrounded by, encouraged, and supported by many who share your opinion. You start wondering, “was I really alone in my opinions this whole time or was it that I was in the wrong context? “
Social media was meant to expand your world, so you could let’s say, strike up a twitter conversation with someone 6,000 miles away and perhaps even understand the cultural perspective of someone outside your culture. Sure, there is definitely a physical, world-wide expansion of communication reach. But are you really expanding your psychological world? Think about it. Don’t you get followed, or don’t you follow, like-minded individuals? This brave new world of following, having followers, liking and “favoriting” posts seems to facilitate what is referred to as “The Confirmation Bias”, that is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. Like-minded people tend to “hang” together on social media. Have you noticed that with the discover function of twitter you get hashtag trends depending on your network. I have six twitter accounts (some are business-related) from which I tweet. Yes, a bit extreme (pun intended). And I get different trends on the discover page. On my blog twitter account this morning I got the following as trends: #Facebook and 8 best apps for team collaboration. On a work-related twitter account, I got #catfish and Wendy Davis. What? Who am I anymore? I guess who I am, and thus what I scream and shout about in the virtual world, depends on my followers and I who I follow. I am, what I tweet!
In addition to virtually hanging out with like-minded individuals and having your thoughts validated, guess what else happens nowadays through social media. Research strongly suggests that, in most cases, the more often a message is repeated, the more readily you believe it, and the more readily others accept it. So, the more you state your opinion (your underlying attitude), the more entrenched it becomes for you. Usually, the first time you hear a new idea or argument you may not believe or accept it. But by the time you read it (hear it) for the 100th time, especially if it comes from several different credible sources such as website posters that have hundreds of fans, its persuasive value tends to increase, over and above the merits of the argument itself. This repetition of one’s opinion or this constant exposure to certain opinions means that these messages get stored more readily in memory and can be recalled more easily. There is what is called the “availability heuristic” which is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events, such as–others share my opinion–with greater “availability” in memory. Because these ideas and attitudes are more readily accessible they are transferred from long term memory to what is called working memory.
These readily accessible working memories then influence opinions. It is a cyclical pattern that is enhanced through social media. Attitudes become resistant to change as a function of the speed with which they are brought into memory; stronger attitudes are brought to mind more quickly. I went, for example, from liking Rum to being one of its biggest fans. I follow rum distilleries and tweet constantly about the inherent yumminess of Rum. I flat out adore caffeine and will swear up and down on the greatness of coffee. I will tweet every science article that finds caffeine is actually good for one’s health. Why do I do that? Caffeine and Rum are in my twitter bio, and I am busy validating my own biases. I have become what I tweet. And guess what, many of my followers also like caffeine and cocktails. I could throw a nice garden party with my twitter peeps. I guess there is something to be said about sharing tweets with like-minded individuals. Party on, Garth.
Now I ask you, does social media really expand your world and your world view? Can there be a middle ground? These comment sections in news articles, are in a way, leading to massive segments of attitude polarization. This polarization is everywhere you turn nowadays and even when there is evidence contrary to one’s belief, many just react by strengthening their beliefs and engaging in hyperbolic discussions. Go ahead and skip straight to the comments section. I often do so to get a pulse of the community. When you click the follow button, you are selectively deciding what information to expose yourself to. Although, I must admit I do not know what to make of the action of following Kim Kardashian, let’s say. How does she frame our worldview? By the way, where is the baby picture of North West? I am eagerly awaiting that tweet and its ensuing comments section on the Huffington Post when they inevitably publish it on their front page as a news item. You know you have a strong opinion on the name, now it’s time to see the face.