The effects of social media

I feel tremendous guilt,” are the words Chamath Palihapitiya used in 2017 when discussing the consequences of the social media tools that he helped to realize while working at Facebook (Palihapitiya, 2017). Like many contemporary critics, Palihapitiya has found that the promises of “futurists” and “technophiles” — and some he made himself — have arrived with an unforeseen weight of consequences. He says, in no uncertain terms, that social technologies are destroying the social fabric, ruining public discourse, and pushing us into shallow and extreme versions of ourselves. Does the media effects literature agree? Though it is too soon to say with any degree of validity (Lin, 2009, p. 584), Palihapitiya expresses concerns that are repeated throughout the history of mass media. Indeed, anytime the media environment changes, it is soon followed by changes in the public discourse (Gerbner, 1969, 1998). Therefore, it may be possible to find generalizability between existing research and the effects of new media — or, if nothing else, to take stock of the difficulty in studying mass communication.

On the effects of social media — herein, understood as a distinct class of media in both form and content, resulting from a combination of technological capabilities (like Web 2.0, mobile internet, and the advent of push-notifications) and social networking platforms, which together serve a unique role in contemporary life compared to other internet-based media — it would be naive to state that they are harmless or unextraordinary, and it would be equally shortsighted to see them as cultural juggernauts unreconcilable with existing media effects literature. This apparent dissonance is best resolved with a look to early cultivation theory. The field finds itself in a moment like that of George Gerbner in 1969, needing to restore clarity to the effects of mass communication in a changed media environment (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009). In the words of Gerbner:

A change in the social bases and economic goals of message mass-production leads, sooner or later, to a transformation of the common symbolic environment that gives public meaning and sense of direction to human activity.” (1969, p. 138)

Because of a need for new theorizing and because of a changed media environment that threatens to up-end the media effects literature (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Witucki, 2019), it would be premature to ascribe moral and ethical value to any facet or mechanism behind social media. However, there are specific effects with clear positive and negative consequences (Lin, 2009, p. 584). With the same impetus as what drove the early research of violent media, and despite being opened to the same criticisms, an emphasis on the negative consequences is warranted here because of the significance in understanding them. Media effects scholars must, again, follow the lead of public concerns and risk entering the public discussion in order to inform both the public and policymakers during a critical point that will determine the shape of policy to come — a point also made by Stoycheff (2016, pp. 307 – 308) whose words form a cogent call-to-action in light of their finding’s implications on honest and open public discourse.

The negative effects of internet-based media can include things like new forms of propaganda and warfare; however, those that are most concerning are long-term social effects that impinge on the lives of individuals, manifesting into isolation and loneliness. One such effect is sacrificing in-person social contact, but this is a rudimentary look at social factors that can take many forms and attributes (Lin, 2009, p. 571). Social media permits contact with an extended social group, across prior social and geographic barriers — that is, a person can use social media to augment their relationships through contact with far-away friends (Lin, 2009, p. 572) and by establishing new relationships within, for example, likeminded groups (Lin, 2009, p. 571). Unfortunately, the overwhelming social good of these outcomes must be tempered against dependence. When digital social contact supplants physical social contact, the repercussions can undermine a person’s wellbeing across physical and mental health, career and finances, and in the social contexts of their home, work, and local community (Lin, 2009, pp. 573 – 574).

In stark contrast to contemporary criticism, the effects literature on social media is cautious but optimistic. While this may be due to the rate of technological change hampering study or the general public taking alarmist and reactionary positions, the lessons of cultivation also apply. Even relatively small negative effects can have significant long-term consequences for the individual and act as an aggregate force across the culture (Morgan et al., 2009, pp. 38 – 39) — and the public cannot be trusted to interpret research on their own. Camaj and Santana (2015) suggest an additional perspective for understanding discrepancies (p. 338). Their behavioral findings on political and apolitical Facebook groups adds to a growing body of literature implying that social media users are adapting constructs of social behavior for physical spaces and applying them to these new contexts. Social media, then, is like an agora, and in mimicking such conceptions it comes with some of the same social behaviors. Such a metaphor may explain how social media can serve all manner of intended and unintended purposes. That, for example, apolitical sites can house quality political discussion, or that the nature of discussions will exhibit different qualities as group size, member transience, and structured social expectations shift.

In the 1850s, British journalism scholars were at a significant moment — and they knew it. In the journals of the era, they penned essays evaluating the significance and cultural power of the press. Of those people, one K. Hunt writing in the Edinburgh Review (1850), examined the Fourth Estate — “unquestionably the most grave, noticeable, formidable phenomenon; the greatest fact of our times” — tracing its growth from pamphlet to the earliest conceptions of news and factual discourse. Still another figure, Alexander Andrews (1859), chronicled the full history “of this mighty Mind-Engine — of this tremendous Moral Power.” We find ourselves today in another significant moment, at a point when the environment of mass communication has changed. We owe it to each other to study all that we can about this moment because, in the words of Andrews, “if but one half of what has been said of it were true, it should have chroniclers innumerable, for where could a grander theme be found?”

Literature reviewed
  • Andrews, A. (1859). The History of British Journalism: from the foundation of the newspaper press in England, to the repeal of the Stamp act in 1855 (Vol. 1). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c024315313
  • Bennett, W. L., & Iyengar, S. (2008). A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication. Journal of Communication, 58(4), 707 – 731. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00410.x
  • Camaj, L., & Santana, A. D. (2015). Political Deliberation on Facebook during Electoral Campaigns: Exploring the Relevance of Moderator’s Technical Role and Political Ideology. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 12(4), 325 – 341. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2015.1100224
  • Gerbner, G. (1969). Toward “Cultural Indicators”: The Analysis of Mass Mediated Public Message Systems. AV Communication Review, 17(2), 137 – 148. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  • Gerbner, G. (1998). Telling Stories, or How Do We Know What We Know? The Story of Cultural Indicators and the Cultural Environment Movement. Wide Angle, 20(2), 116 – 131. https://doi.org/10.1353/wan.1998.0017
  • Hunt, F. K., Massey, M.P., W., & Blakey, R. (1855). The Newspaper Press. In The Edinburgh Review. A. and C. Black.
  • Lin, C. A. (2009). The effects of the Internet. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 567 – 591). New York: Routledge.
  • Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2009). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 34 – 49). New York: Routledge.
  • Palihapitiya, C. (2017). View From The Top: Chamath Palihapitiya [Talk]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/PMotykw0SIk?t=1281
  • Stoycheff, E. (2016). Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 93(2), 296 – 311. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016630255
  • Witucki, D. (2019, February 27). Media Effects in Aggregate: Confluences and limitations. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from Derek Witucki website: https://derekwitucki.com/blog/media-effects-in-aggregate-confluences-and-limitations