Groupthink on Social Networking Sites

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Shirky theorizes that increased Internet use leads to a greater social capital and collective action. With the increased prevalence of social networking sites, many wondered how this new ability to access instant information at such a rapid pace might impact this relationship. In Realizing the Social Internet? Online Social Networking Meets Offline Social Capital, Pasek, More, and Romer investigate just that: the relationship between SNS use and social capital. They find that SNS use positively correlated to the indicators of social capital, civic engagement and political knowledge. While these findings are very impressive, are they necessarily positive? An important point that Karpf makes in his article Measuring the Success of Digital Campaigns, is that since several sites require subscription (“following” on Twitter and “friend-ing” on Facebook) many of the messages that circulate stay within a realm of people that often share similar views. One is less likely to follow someone on Twitter with whom they strongly disagree with than for instance a politician whom they adore.

Though Pasek correlated SNS use to an increased amount of social capital, specifically in civil engagement and political knowledge, just because users are more “knowledgeable” this does not imply that the information they are getting is necessarily the truth or unbiased. Certainly, access to unbiased political information is not a difficulty only in the SNS world, but is prominent in other media such as television or newspapers. However, it is still important to realize that just because users are gaining knowledge, this does not mean that voters, for instance, are making informed decisions. I might hypothesize, in fact, that SNS users are less likely to make individualized, informed decisions regarding politics due to their constant access to the opinions of their friends and a specific group with whom they interact online.

An important term to reference is William Whyte’s “groupthink.” In Irving Janis’ article Group Think, she describes the term best in saying “the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of…a in-group, the greater the danger that independent and critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions…” While Glaisyer investigates the power of the government in closed communities to impact users, perhaps the debilitating force is much closer than we thought, in our own online social circles. As Pasek, More, and Romer point to the fact that nearly 60% of 14- to 22-year olds report using some social networking site, is our generation at the greatest risk?

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4 Responses to Groupthink on Social Networking Sites

  1. triciamittman says:

    I think our generation is at great risk for developing a groupthink idea mainly because it is easier than ever to determine what it is that the ingroup is thinking or believing in. For instance, if I see on Facebook that 10 of my friends read the same article, I’m likely to read it as well, discuss it with them, and likely develop similar ideas and reactions as they have. This ultra dynamic group-think operation carries through to political offices as well. By seeing which of my friends are voting for which candidate, its easy for me to evaluate that person, my beliefs of them, their presidential allegiance, and thus this will intuitively affect my decisions. In a world filled with personalization regarding ones’ peers and our opinions, we must remember to maintain an open mind and stick to values that are true of ourselves.

  2. Lauren Myefski says:

    After considering this question, I am torn and feel that I stand somewhere in the middle on the argument. On one side, I would agree that our generation is at risk for groupthink more than ever because of SNS. Based on the principle of social proof, we often make decisions based on what the masses are doing, especially when it comes to things we are uncertain about. Although the principle of social proof has been around for a long time, it is now easier than ever to figure out what everyone else is doing at any given moment. I think this is especially true when it comes to politics and younger generations because this is a topic they know less about. As they enter the world of politics, they may feel uncertain and as a result this generation is more likely to look to their peers to see what actions/beliefs are correct and incorrect. With the increase in social media, it is unbelievably easy to determine what others are doing, thus making the likelihood of groupthink in our generation seem pretty high. In this sense, I would agree that SNS users are less likely to make individualized decisions. Yet, if I were to argue the opposite of this, I would say that SNS users have the opportunity to become educated and form a multitude of opinions because so many people participate. The more people that are involved means there are more viewpoints for users to consider when they are trying to make educated decisions. Ultimately, I think that it is important that our generation is aware of how easy it is to conform to others. If we try to listen to people who do not necessarily share our same values and opinions, as well as make our own voice heard, we are less likely to succumb to group think.

  3. danicawhitfield says:

    I really think that your point “just because users are gaining knowledge, this does not mean that voters, for instance, are making informed decisions” is very valid and relevant. I do agree with what you are saying, however my stance on your question is similar to Lauren’s response because I am on the fence. I think that because our generation has so much experience with SNS that we are more likely to be persuaded by what we see. It’s very easy to trust fifteen of your friends who express their opinions on a certain political issue but it’s even harder to go against the grain and tell them that you disagree. Because we place so much value in who we share our information with I think that it’s hard to go against groupthink and therefore we are basing our decisions on what we see. With sites like Twitter, FourSquare and even Google+ we can see almost anything our friends decide to post online which I think would make the chances of groupthink even greater. However, since SNS make it so easy to defriend or unfollow people I think that we are able to make our own individual decisions and be more particular about who we choose to believe. Because sites like Facebook and Twitter now suggest followers to us based on our current friend group or ‘follow’ pool we are more likely to see other varying opinions of people we did not initially seek out in the first place. Because of this, I think that we are able to rethink our choices about who we believe online and stick to our own views, thus distancing ourselves from groupthink.

  4. alexlcraig says:

    I agree with Danica and Lauren about being torn. I think you make a lot of valid points, and it is definitely true that websites such as Facebook and Twitter may limit the information you receive because you are only following or friends with certain people. But Twitter for example, there are many people you follow, not because they have the same political view as you but because they are your favorite athlete or celebrity. While they may not post political information or opinions often, with the upcoming election, it is possible to see political tweets from unexpected sources. I don’t think users will simply unfriend/unlike/unfollow because of a few posts they don’t agree with. Also, with the topic of trending articles on Facebook, while it is true that when a large group of my friends read an article, I am more likely to also read it, I think it is broadening my information intake, because without seeing how many people I know read it, I probably never would have stumbled across the article on my own.

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