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How social media influences the way we engage with news, politics and each other

periodiCALS, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 2019

Time was, if you wanted to share your opinion about politics, you had to do it deliberatively, by sending a letter to the editor or standing up at a public meeting. Or you could state your case in person, knowing that you would immediately feel the social ramifications of your opinions. 

Then came social media. And along with it, the ability to instantly post, tweet, pin and upvote every story or opinion that crossed your path—and the simultaneous ability of your boss, your uncle and your college roommate to see your opinions, and react to them, in real time. 

People could once maintain control over their social boundaries and the topics they discussed within those groups, but on social media, all those contexts are “collapsed,” says Natalie Bazarova, associate professor in the Department of Communication and director of the Cornell Social Media Lab.

“You have relatives, colleagues, neighbors, high school friends, liberals, conservatives, independent friends all collapsed into a single network,” Bazarova says. “It really complicates how people present themselves online.

Undoing Spirals of Silence

Social media amplifies mass expression—of a mood, an ideology or a joke—in a way never before possible. Connections form online and build into full-blown movements, for good and bad.

The #MeToo movement is one of the most potent expressions of social media’s power. In the past, accusations of sexual misconduct may have made it onto the news if the individuals involved were famous, but many women felt trapped in a “spiral of silence,” says Drew Margolin, assistant professor and the Geri Gay Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in the Department of Communication.

“Something happens to you, but you never see it talked about. So you feel isolated and fear being embarrassed, and so you don’t talk about it, which continues the spiral. We have the ability to undo a lot of spirals of silence with platforms that enable and encourage everyone to share their experiences,” Margolin says. “Before social media, the mainstream media might have said, ‘Sure, Harvey Weinstein is a criminal, but this is extreme behavior by a unique individual.’ Now the Twitterverse is there saying, ‘No, you need to pay attention to this as a general social issue.’”

Online organizing done in private and secret groups has also been crucial to mass demonstrations like the Women’s March, the March for Science and Black Lives Matter. 

Secret and moderated groups on Facebook and other social media channels have allowed people to feel safer about expressing their political opinions without fear of backlash or repercussions from those in their offline networks, according to Brooke Erin Duffy, assistant professor in the Department of Communication. 

“There’s a sense of community and collective solidarity that can flourish in these spaces,” she says. 

One reason that marginalized groups, especially women, have sought out closed groups is to avoid the harassment common in more public media spaces. Pew Research Center found that while both men and women experience harassment online, women are twice as likely to be harassed because of their gender. 

“The criticism women receive tends to focus on their gender rather than the content of what they post,” Duffy says. “This problem is particularly pronounced in domains that are stereotypically masculine, such as sports, gaming and politics. Women trying to participate in these spaces may experience incredible backlash.”

Anger = Engagement = Media company profits

Online advertising revenues are based on attention: how many stories people click and how “engaged” readers are with the stories, based on time spent reading, shares and online comments. So, which emotion elicits the most engagement? Anger. 

Margolin studied people participating in social media groups during and after NFL games. He found that the discussions that elicited sadness caused people to disengage while those that aroused anger kept people hooked. 

“The pattern we saw was that anger keeps people talking,” Margolin says. 

Media companies work to maximize engagement, and one method is through distorted headlines, according to Margolin. In an effort to get people to click, media companies of all types run headlines that go beyond the factual assertions in the stories themselves or that insert bias into a straight-news story. 

Distorted headlines are particularly damaging because on social media, people may only read an article’s headline and then “engage” based on its tone or exaggerated, unsupported claims. 

“It’s not only people on the fringes who believe fake news. Fake news is an extreme version of a click-bait world,” Margolin says. 


Those old enough to feel jarred by the changes wrought by social media might learn some lessons from young people who have never known a world without social media. How do they cope?

Duffy says young people are continually concerned about how they are perceived on social media. There are implications of feeling that you’re being surveilled—and judged.

“Young people used to have spaces where they could share personal experiences and not fear retaliation, but because of collapsed social media contexts, many express concerns about, ‘What happens if this material gets in the wrong hands?’” Duffy and doctoral candidate Ngai Keung Chan argue that such “imagined surveillance” can be paralyzing.

One strategy is creating accounts that re-establish real-world social contexts. Users may keep a professional LinkedIn account while allowing themselves to be sillier on Facebook. Online there’s a constant tug between being authentic and circumspect about what you publish. Some seek to protect their privacy by creating multiple accounts: a “rinsta,” or real Instagram with their real name, which they maintain in a highly curated form to give a certain impression to the world, and a “finsta,” or fake Instagram, where they feel freer to express themselves, warts and all. It’s one more irony of the digital age that the “fake” accounts are the ones where users present themselves authentically. 

“The original idea behind social media was that you would have this giant public forum and people could attend to the views of people who think really differently from them—from all around the world,” Margolin says. “But we never tried to regulate the social norms online. You can’t just have the technology—you also need a considered approach to the technology. Media literacy isn’t just about interpreting what the media says; it’s also about how we interact with each other.”

How do you combat fake news online? 

Here are some tips, based on research by Cornell CALS’ social media experts: 

  • Re-establish contexts on Facebook by joining or creating groups based on your real-life associations, such as family, church friends or colleagues. If you want to discuss politics online but not with everyone you know, consider joining or creating a moderated group with people who are politically engaged and capable of discussing politics respectfully.
  • For even more privacy, be cognizant of your customized privacy settings. Use your real name for your “public” profile and a pseudonym for a profile just for friends.
  • Resist the urge to immediately share posts, fact-check every post before sharing and read articles—not just headlines—before sharing or commenting. 
  • Fact-check posts of friends who share your politics; they are more likely to reject fake news if it’s pointed out by a like-minded friend.
  • Call out media bias specifically. If you see a factual error, contact the media company and request a correction. If a headline on a news story is biased or exaggerated to encourage clicks, complain about the headline specifically. Crying “fake news” without evidence increases polarization without solving the problem. 

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During a one-year appointment as an associate vice provost in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, Natalie Bazarova will support research in the social sciences and other disciplines that rely on large data sets.

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