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How Social Media Distorts Reality

We live in a world full of competing ideas, opinions and perceptions about what’s what in the world. So how do we form our own opinions? And how does social media influence that process?

In his article “How social media distorts the truth about everything we know,” New York Post contributor J.A. Reed spent some time talking about this question with Todd Rose, author of Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions.

Rose dives into the question of how others’ opinions shape our own convictions in some surprising ways. In 1932, for instance, a Syracuse University professor studied the small, deeply devout community of Eaton, New York. He asked residents what they thought of three particular activities: smoking, drinking and playing bridge. Almost without exception, townspeople responded that those activities were sinful. Yet digging deeper, he found that many of those respondents also confessed to enjoying those things in the privacy of their own homes.

Where did the disconnect come from? It turns out that an outspoken church elder named Mrs. Salt (you can’t make this stuff up) condemned those activities. And everyone assumed that she spoke for the majority and conformed their publicly expressed opinions to hers.

How does this relate to social media’s ability to shape our perceptions today? The Post’s Reed writes, “Social media functions like a million digital Mrs. Salts.” We can easily assume that there’s consensus on an issue when a few outspoken people express their opinions about a given issue online.

Further complicating this is the presence of bot accounts that can shift public opinion significantly. Reed writes:

“In 2013, Twitter shut down more than 6,000 bot accounts that were programmed to retweet content from Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Although the bots made up just .5 percent of the leader’s followers, terminating them caused his retweets to drop by 81 percent. What’s more, economist Juan Morales later found that the bots’ termination correlated with a rise in criticism of the president. The phony consensus created by the bots had actually cowed dissenters into silence.”

Ultimately, our perception of consensus on any given social issue may be just that: a perception, and one that may well be disconnected from reality were we able to see the whole picture clearly. Rose suggests that the antidote is refusing to let social media dictate how we categorize and sort people and their opinions, even when they might be different from our own: “Social media is a carnival of funhouse mirrors—it will distort. We can’t do anything about that, but we each have control over whether that distortion changes the way we treat one another.”

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.

One Response

  1. -How about we stop complaining and do something about it. All I read and hear is cancel this and that, boycott so and so, ban this and that but there’s never a solution that actually works to stop it from happening. How about we do the same thing they are doing? They swore they would get into politic and they sure did. They swore they would get into our children’s schools and they’ve recently proved that to be true. And now unfortunately they are in Catholic Church (Pope promotes homosexuality) They are in all forms of social media; no matter what we watch or hear it’s there and hard to avoid sometimes. Why don’t we really analyze what they are doing and do the opposite. They promote depravity, let’s promote morality. They promote evil, let’s promote good. They promote boasting, let’s promote modesty and so on and so on. So Christian film makers should make their own version of Disney movies and animated films that will capture not just Christians but everyone so this way we are encouraging and influencing the non Christians too. Christian musicians, singers, and song writers should promote not just music that only Christian will listen to but everyone. If they have twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc then let’s invent our own where it promotes good morality and again not just for Christians. Make rules/contracts we have to agree and sign in order to work for or use these platforms the way they do but with our own moral conduct agreements. Have you ever noticed their strategy on how to target all of us to watch and listen. For example Netflix movies never promote that a movie or series has homosexuality, or that they are sexualizing children, right? All we see in the ratings is G, PG13 ( these still includes promotion of immoral acts) or R rated but only for sex( doesn’t not state same sex sexual acts), violence, etc. First part of the movie or series starts off good and once you’ve watch a few episodes BANG they promote the bad stuff. Let’s use their own formula to promote good. Also instead of giving so much attention to just the negativity of those people, let’s write about and give attention to good people. Give suggestions like let’s pray for them to find God and change their ways. Let’s pray for our doctors, scientists, and mental experts around the world to find a treatment and cure because most do suffer from depression and are suicidal or have other issues. Good bless us all🙏🏼