How Social Media Causes Disruptive Group Dynamics

Published on January 18, 2021

After the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol, a colleague messaged me immediately. He thought that my previous article related to legacy systems and Caesar’s last breath had been “prescient”. In it, I had joked that Julius Caesar’s assassination in the senate in 44 BC provided us with the minor comfort that though our current day politicians might be detestable, at least they didn’t stab each other on the senate floor.

Prescient? It might have been more like premature patting on the back! The fallout from the odious events of Jan. 6 has ignited a debate about the role of social media. It’s an important discussion for society. It’s time for a data-driven conversation. We need to investigate how social media changes group dynamics itself.

Social Media Continues to Make News

In other news, on January 7th Elon Musk tweeted that people should ditch WhatsApp in favor of Signal. That wasn’t related to the US Capitol insurrection, but to changes in Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s privacy policies. Zuckerberg wants the right to see communications between users and businesses within the app. WhatsApp plans to use that information for Facebook advertising. That change went well – not! As millions of users across the world moved to Signal and Telegram, WhatsApp delayed the policy implementation. I’m a bit unclear myself on how exactly delaying the invasion of privacy helps. As you can tell, I may be a bit cynical on this.

Examining Social Media’s Role in Group Dynamics

The two events are indirectly connected. Society is grappling with the increased role of social media. Is it a platform of free speech? It certainly played a big role in the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. Is it dangerous? Fake news on WhatsApp is literally killing people in India. What is clear is that something needs to change. We need to address the more significant downsides of social media platforms. However, for this to happen, I believe we need to understand human psychology, rather than just technology.

How Social Media Amplifies Group Dynamics

Central to the understanding of effects of social media is the topic of “group dynamics”. This concept gained prominence after the socio-political horrors of the 1930s and 40s.  The central proposition was that groups possess psychological properties that exist independently of their individual members. When in groups, people find themselves behaving differently. This explains the tendency for polarization, e.g. liberals vs conservatives.

A further specific characteristic behavior within group dynamics is “groupthink”. It’s the phenomena within polarized groups, where concurrence-seeking and cohesiveness becomes so dominant that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternatives. Groupthink replaces independent critical thinking. That results in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against opposing groups.

Social media simply amplifies these group dynamics. It does so by generating high levels of solidarity. It becomes hard in a social media group to express disagreement. If, for example, an outspoken and popular member of a WhatsApp group begins to circulate misinformation about health risks, the general urge is to maintain solidarity. Their messages are likely to be met with approval and thanks. 

Sociological Trends Driven by Social Media

To begin to address the negative sociological aspects of social media, we need to understand specific cause-effects relationships. Are “open” groups like Twitter or Facebook really worse than “closed” groups like WhatsApp? As it turns out, they each have their own group dynamics effects.

Open Groups Accelerate Polarization

Open groups accelerate polarization and radicalization. The issue is the pervasiveness of information in your social circle. The volume of messages reinforces your own biases. Another issue is that the process of voicing your perspective in a big open group constitutes a commitment to action. The views displayed on the forum are then strengthened by positive feedback, such as likes, follows, retweets, etc. Polarization and groupthink within open groups are thus a given.

Closed Groups Enable Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories

Closed groups like WhatsApp are designed to ensure privacy and intimacy because they are “by invitation” collectives. We care about each other within the group and enjoy speaking freely. However, studies are showing that as trust in closed groups grows, it often coincides with a parallel distrust of public institutions and officials. The perceived “free speech” and increased reliance on groupthink, can escalate alienation from democracy itself.

Corporate Profit-making Objectives Have Corrupted the Internet’s Original Open-systems Goals 

The commercialization of personal information is another development in the past two decades that’s accelerating the effects of negative group dynamics. During the early days of the internet, an idealistic spirit prevailed. The internet was meant to be an open public space. Yes, select communities could cluster for their own particular purposes, such as creating open-source software projects or Wikipedia entries. However, the bigger resolve was for greater democracy.

The commercialization of personal data by companies such as Facebook is eroding this. The internet’s potential for greater surveillance and negative group dynamics has always existed. However, the rise of the giant platforms may have prioritized personal profit over community benefit.

Where do we go from here?

Social media is still a relatively young phenomena for society. For every positive benefit, such as reconnecting with old schoolmates, there’s the risk of a US Capitol insurrection. Unfortunately, sociological risks, like the proliferation of conspiracy theories and rise of false information have the potential to be a ground-level foundation for worse societal ills to come.

The recent incidents are an opportunity to tweak the models of social media. We are at the crossroads of how society can accentuate the positives and mitigate the risks. We need to act.

My hope is that we go back and strengthen the basics. Some things are worth protecting – Truth, Data, Science, Laws, Values and Principles. If companies or individuals drift significantly from these, we must demand consequences. 

Tony Saldanha is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the President of Transformant, a consulting firm specializing in assisting organizations through digital transformations. During his twenty-seven-year career at Procter & Gamble, he ran both operations and digital transformation for P&G’s famed global business services and IT organization in every region of the world, ending up as Vice President of Global Business services, next Generation services. He is an advisor to boards and CEOs on digital transformation, a sought-after speaker, and a globally awarded industry thought leader.

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