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Groupthink

Ride the Wave: Social Media’s Effect on Groupthink

With so many people communicating with each other via social media it raises the question, can/are people being influenced by groupthink and how does that affect society and its future?

By Dikembe Wilkins

In the late 2000s social media, such as Facebook and Twitter made the world even smaller than the internet did in the 90s. Allowing millions of people that, ten years before, wouldn’t be aware of each other’s existence to connect and share common and differing ideas. This constantly creates a changing online world. The side effects of which on the minds of society are still for the most part unknown.

Presently, online communities wage verbal wars against each other, stan (stalker fan) armies have become “a thing” and people get judged by the color of their text messages. This behavior could have something to do with an old concept called “groupthink.”

Groupthink was first brought to the public when social psychologist Irving Janis, had his book, “Victims of Groupthink,” published in 1972 and follow it up with a second book in 1982, “Groupthink.” Through his studies he defines groupthink as a “mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Basically, when similar people are exposed to each other in a group setting they can be influenced by one another to think the same.

With so many people communicating with each other via social media it raises the question, can/are people being influenced by groupthink and how does that affect society and its future?

Yanick Rice Lamb, a professor at Howard University who researches self-censorship thinks so. “I think that social media causes a lot of people to fall in line with each other and to adopt the thinking of the group that they’re in, whether it’s positive or negative.”

Lamb believes that groupthink could be pushing social media users into self-censorship, feeling that if they share a view that is oppositional from their group’s they may be ostracized. “Others also don’t want to be singled out for tweets by people they don’t know. They don’t want people coming for them.” Such as when an Atlanta chef Justin Mack tweeted “Barbs will buy everything Nicki but concert tickets.” In response the Barbz, Nicki Minaj stans, spammed his restaurant with bad reviews on Google and Facebook. Mack also says he received death threats and his mother was harassed.

Embed Tweet:

 Death threats to my phone and an online call to action to find my home address along with finding my mom’s account on my PERSONAL Facebook sending her screenshot of my sister (her youngest daughter who’s now dead) of someone saying “she’s rotting with maggots now” IS disgusting. https://t.co/7SE3zg81wC

 While instances of argument and harassment are common on social media, groupthink may also influence people’s perceptions and their behavior as consumers.

The U.S. government seems to believe that this is a topic worth looking into as they have invested money into research on similar subjects through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF funded Social Cyber Security from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute is currently making progress on this front. Recently the aforementioned group has published an overview of their current research about How Your Brain Believes Without Thinking, naming four ideas for why this happens:

Cori Falkaris, a member of the Social Cyber Security team says that social media “makes it very easy to access what other people think and because there is such a huge amount of media and it’s something that we’re looking at for so much of the day, it can also influence us in ways that we’re not even conscious of.”

Falkaris and the team have found that it is much easier for people to use system one thinking and make a decision to go with the group than to use system two and compare the pros and cons of an action.

“We are more likely to think that something, or a certain behavior is correct if we see other people doing that or thinking that way,” said Falkaris.

She believes that it’s also possible that groupthink could factor into consumers unknowingly acting as marketing tools for companies.

Examples of this would be how through social media the Popeyes chicken sandwich went viral resulting in a drastic increase in sales that would lead to the sandwich selling out nationwide in late August, or consumers conflating green text messages with a lack of wealth, pushing people to buy an iPhone.

The assumed way to combat the urge to push a product would be for people to use their second system of thinking. But Social Cyber Security says that they have yet to find a way to get people to think critically before they act online.

Lamb also felt that groupthink factored into the brands that people tend to support or buy the most from, specifically phone companies.

“I think there’s a lot of groupthink in terms of products and definitely in terms of people purchasing phones. I think that some companies tap into that to fuel it, or they’re watching it so they can know how to pivot or counteract if it’s working negatively.”

Dr. Yong Jin Park, professor of policy, technology and society at Howard University, who researches how people apply new technologies and social media in societies says that the life span of groupthink is not very long. He believes that online events such as cancel culture happen dramatically and last about one or two days but are quickly dropped

“But let’s say if that “dramatic thing” somehow impacts your psychology, which most studies do not measure, then we’re probably having some of the great groupthink going on because of social media,” said Dr. Park.

Dr. Park also thinks that anyone could be vulnerable to groupthink and that groupthink via social media can be used for both good and bad.

He mentions “Black Twitter” as a social space that is used to spread information that most likely would not make it to the mainstream media, such as instances of police brutality. However, according to experts, even as a space that has done good it may also have a negative effect of isolating itself from the opinions of other groups.

Referencing “Black Twitter,” Dr. Park says, “It should be influencing beyond the reach of African American society. In other work that I did, those kinds of tweets are very much happening on the African American focus but on the other, whites don’t actually tweet each other (black twitter and white twitter are not interacting). That means that there is a possibility there that we have (a) certain bubble actually going on.”

“So, vulnerability despite the fact that we have the potential of spreading (awareness of) police brutality. Vulnerability is tied not just to African Americans but to whites too. They are isolated as much as African Americans, as much as probably Asians. If that’s not happening, meaningfully conveying the message from one group to the other, although that same group actually thinks quick and intensely, if that group actually does not communicate with the other. Then you know we’re all vulnerable in that sense.” According to Dr. Park that vulnerability he is referring to is social media users putting themselves into echo-chambers, limiting their openness to outside concepts curbing their ability to reach those outside of their group.

The idea that social media and the internet’s influence on people is a very new concept and is still in its early stages of being researched. Because of this there are very few published studies on the subject and researchers have found it difficult to judge the internet’s long-term effects.