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The below is a post I wrote a year or so ago, which is an important consideration for the upcoming presidential election. Enjoy!
Who’s sitting with you?
Think back to your high school years. Were you a part of a clique or were you an outcast? There were always the cliques who grouped together and there were always a few who were isolated at the lunchroom table.
If you were to look at your social media activity, would it appear that you are once again part of a clique or an outcast?
Chances are, the posts that show up in your News Feed are from people with similar interests and opinions to your own. The saying “Birds of a feather flock together”, was used by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook to describe the concept of homophily, which results from people having social contacts that are like themselves (2001).
Social media is a great tool for this because, in addition to helping a user connect to people he already knows, the platform might make suggestions for people for the user to follow or friend and groups for the user to join. This is typically done via an algorithm that identifies the user’s habits and connections and suggests that she might know the person, because the two have a friend or more in common or because the two have similar interests. The users might originally share interests, or the interests of one or both friends might change, as a result of their friendship (Aiello et. al, 2012).
Do you feel like the outcast?
Social media algorithms and cognitive biases contribute to homophily among users, as well. The algorithms ensure the user has suggestions for potential friends and groups with similar likes and dislikes. Cognitive biases propel people to have their own reality, of sorts, due to their perceptions, preferences, and opinions. While this tendency for forming cognitive biases is natural, it can lead to homophily and, ultimately, polarity and isolation, due to the person’s desire to seek out, befriend, and form groups with people similar to them, based on their shared beliefs.
While this can benefit the user by creating a feeling of homophily, it can also cost the person the benefit of accurate information (in some instances), which might lead to poor decisions.
The coupling of social media algorithms and cognitive bias only increases the polarity between a user and those with conflicting views. Humans tend to believe they are correct, and the other side of the argument is incorrect, and this fuels a flame of controversy and puts social media users into echo chambers, which consist of shared opinions and the possibility of inaccurate information being deemed credible, simply because the user who posted the information shares similar views to the members of the group.
A good example of the echo chamber’s negative contribution to one’s well-being might be a person receiving health information from online sources, which are not credible, but because the users share similar views, they are willing to trust one another (Schweiger & Cress, 2019).
Moral Purity Snobs?
In a study by Dehghani et al., they found that concerns of moral purity affect how people are grouped together in social networks, more than other moral aspects. Moral purity differences tend to repulse people, making them fear they will somehow be contaminated by those with less moral purity.
Additionally, those concerned with moral purity tend to associate blame with the person who they deem less morally pure, rather than the situation.
The scientists behind this study also found that moral purity differences affected how close a person would be willing to sit to the person who is considered less morally pure.
They further tested the participants and found that those who took a moral purity test and were partnered with someone with a similar moral purity score assumed the partner had similar religious and political views. They also assumed the partner who tested the opposite of them on moral purity had different religious and political views.
The study not only shows how a person’s point of view is a contributing factor to purity homophily, but also how the point of view is a contributing factor to isolation, via the avoidance of others with opposing views. Homophily and isolation are present within social networks, as well as in real life (2016).
How can you be better informed?
Online polarization can affect viewpoint heterogeneity, which is important in democratic societies (Bessi et al., 2016). Since social media algorithms tend to give users more of that in which the user has expressed an interest, it’s important to remain curious. Users should research views that are dissimilar to their own, from credible sources. There are steps one can take to ensure he does not rely on news that might be incorrect.
According to Libguides, one suggestion is to consider the source of the information. Do the domain and URL seem familiar? How many experts are quoted? Additionally, one can review the comments and search for the image. If the image on the posted information also appears on another piece of news, one should pay attention to the article which seems to originate from the most reliable source (2016).
Finally, one can use a checklist that helps users determine if they are receiving fake news. There are many checklists available, online, one of which is available at the Libguides resource listed below.
Aiello, L., Barrat, A., Schifanella, R., Cattuto, C., Markines, B., & Menczer, F. (2012). Friendship prediction and homophily in social media. ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB), 6(2), 1-33. doi:10.1145/2180861.2180866
Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Del Vicario, M., Puliga, M., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., . . . Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). Users polarization on facebook and youtube. PloS One, 11(8), e0159641. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159641
Dehghani, M., Johnson, K., Hoover, J., Sagi, E., Garten, J., Parmar, N. J., . . . Graham, J. (2016). Purity homophily in social networks. Journal of Experimental Psychology.General, 145(3), 366-375. doi:10.1037/xge0000139
Libguides. (2019, October 17). Research Guides: Social Media: Fake News. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://libguides.dickinson.edu/socialmedia/fakenews.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415-444. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415
Schweiger, S., & Cress, U. (2019). Attitude confidence and source credibility in information foraging with social tags. PloS One, 14(1), e0210423. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210423