If the Medium is the Message, What Message Is Social Media Sending?

I typically focus on the positive use of social media to help organizations achieve objectives. I’ve also discussed how social media professionals must act ethically to build trust in brands and their professions. I haven’t talked about the negative aspects of social media itself.

Yet, evidence of the negative effects of social media on mental health and society is increasing. Is there something unique about social media as a technology and a form of communication that may be causing negative, unintended consequences?

Book about technology's impact on society.
I’ve been reading and revisiting some books recently on technology and society.

The Medium Is The Message.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan first expressed the idea “The medium is the message” in Understanding Media. He said, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” The idea is that a message comes with any new technology or way to communicate beyond the content. The characteristics of the medium influence how the message is perceived.

In 1984 Neil Postman furthered the idea in Amusing Ourselves To Death. Postman said, “The medium is the metaphor.” He observed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture where the medium influences “the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.” He was concerned TV and visual entertainment, consumed in smaller bits of time, would turn journalism, education, and religion into forms of show business.

Is Social Media The Message?

A key to a successful social media strategy is understanding each social media platform has unique characteristics in the form of content (video, image, text standards, and limits) and in the algorithm that determines what posts are seen by who.

These characteristics and metrics create incentives that motivate behavior. In social media that can be engagement (likes, comments, shares, views), sales (products, services), and advertising revenue (audience size, time). The distinct characteristics and incentives encourage the creation of certain types of content and messages over others.

The message of the medium becomes what the platform and its users say is important – what increases response metrics. It could be “a curated, filtered, perfect life”; “an authentic, 100% transparent sharing of personal struggles”; or “criticisms of out-groups to signal tribe membership.”

As an exercise fill in the Table below.

Consider each social platform and the content that gets results. Are there noticeable patterns or themes? From your observations describe what you believe is the overall message the platform is sending.

Spend an hour on each social media platform and see where the algorithm takes you.

Could social media also send its own message by guiding the type of content that gets posted and disseminated? Consider the types of content that get posted and disseminated on social media versus other forms of traditional media and personal communication. What message does it send and what are the fruits of that message?

There are plenty of positives of social media. It enables us to connect with family/friends, find new communities of similar interests, promote important causes, get emotional support, and learn new information, plus it provides an outlet for self-expression and creativity.

A study found that social media can play a positive role in influencing healthy eating (like fruit and vegetable intake) when shared by peers. Yet, the same study also found that fast food advertising targeting adolescents on social media can have a negative influence on unhealthy weight and disease risks.

Negative Effects of Social Media Research.

Below is a highlight of recent studies. All research has its critics and many point out that social media isn’t the exclusive cause of all negative consequences. Social media also has a lot of positive effects on individuals, businesses, organizations, and society. But we should consider its negative effects – something more people are noticing, studying, and feeling.

People Feel Social Media Isn’t Good.

A 2022 Pew Research survey in the U.S. found:

  • 64% feel social media is a bad thing for democracy.
  • 65% believe social media has made us more divided in our political opinions.
  • 70% believe the spread of false information online is a major threat.

Political Out-Group Posts Spread More.

Research on Facebook/Twitter in Psychological And Cognitive Sciences  found:

  • Political out-group posts get shared 50% more than posts about in-groups.
  • Out-group language is shared 6.7 times more than moral-emotional language.
  • Out-group language is a very strong predictor of “angry” reactions.

False Posts Spread Faster Than The Truth.

Research in Science of verified true/false Twitter news stories found:

  • Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
  • It took truth posts 6 times longer to reach 1,500 people.
  • Top 1% false posts reach 1,000-10,000 people (Truth posts rarely reach 1,000).

Algorithms Incentivize Moral Outrage.

A Twitter study in Science Advances found:

  • Algorithms influence moral behavior when newsfeed algorithms determine how much social feedback posts receive.
  • Users express outrage when in ideologically extreme networks where outrage is more widespread.
  • Algorithms encourage moderate users to become less moderate with peers expressing outrage.

Social Media Affects Youth Mental Health.

A 2023 U.S. Surgeon General advisory warned social media can pose a risk to the mental health of children and adolescents. Now 95% of 13–17-year-olds use social media an average of 3.5 hours a day. While acknowleding social media benefits, the advisory warned it may also perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, social comparison, and low self-esteem.

Adults  are especially concerned about social media’s effect on teens and children.

The advisory warns of relationships between youth social media with sleep difficulties and depression. Other highlights include:

  • Adolescents who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media double their risk of depression and anxiety.
  • 64% of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content through social media.
  • 46% of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies – just 14% said it makes them feel better.

A 2023 survey of U.S. teen girls reveals 49% feel “addicted” to YouTube, 45% to TikTok, 34% to Snapchat, and 34% to Instagram. Yet another survey of teens found they believe social media provides more positives (32% mostly positive) versus negatives (9% mostly negative). They feel it’s a place for socializing and connecting with friends, expressing creativity, and feeling supported.

Bubbles, Chambers, and Bias.

Why are we seeing both positive and negative results? Social media’s unique environment can be very supportive, keeping you connected and helping you express yourself. It can also encourage you to improve your life like peers getting you to eat healthier and improve society by making people aware of important causes.

The same social media environment has also created filter bubbles and echo chambers. Technology can knowingly or unknowingly exploit human vulnerabilities that may accentuate confirmation bias and negativity bias.

  • A filter bubble is an algorithmic bias that skews or limits information someone sees on the internet or on social media.
  • An echo chamber is ideas, beliefs, or data reinforced through repetition in a closed system such as social media that doesn’t allow the free flow of alternative ideas.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs.
  • Negativity bias is the tendency for humans to focus more on the negative versus the positive.

Social media algorithms make it easier to produce filter bubbles that create echo chambers. Over time social media chambers lead to confirmation bias loops of negativity incentivized by engagement metrics.

A detailed article from the MIT Technology Review seems to indicate the problem is it’s difficult for AI machine learning algorithms to minimize negative human consequences when growth is the top priority. Much of what is bad for us and society seems to be what keeps us scrolling the most.

Reducing harm may go against growth objectives and current incentive structures for tech companies to produce mega revenue increases. Social media companies like Facebook, now Meta, continue to say they are doing everything they can to reduce harm despite layoffs.

Social Media Fills Our Spare Time.

While the most popular reason for using social media is to keep in touch with family and friends (57%), the second is to fill spare time (40%). What do we fill our spare time with? With a high percentage of social media revenue depending on advertising (96% of Facebook’s and 89% of Twitter’s) newsfeeds fill with what grows engagement to serve more ads to increase revenue.

That seems to be sensationalized content that stokes fears. Shocking content hacks attention playing into our negativity bias. Perhaps Postman’s prediction of everything becoming show business is true. We’re all chasing TV ratings in the form of likes, comments, and shares.

Recently Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg challenged each other to an MMA fight. What greater spectacle than two billionaire owners of competing social media platforms fighting each other in a PPV UFC cage match? Italy’s culture minister even said that it could happen in the Roman Colosseum. I wonder what Neil Postman would say if he were alive?

Journalism Isn’t Immune To Engagement.

As news moves online organizations chase clicks and subscribers through social media. With so many options, news subscribers increasingly seek sources based on confirmation bias. Andrey Mir in Discourse describes a shift to divisive content, “because the best way to boost subscriber rolls and produce results is to target the extremes on either end of the spectrum.”

With 50% of adults getting news from social media sites often or sometimes their stories no longer compete with just other news sites. Stories compete for clicks with the latest viral TikTok and YouTube influencers’ hot takes. A study in Nature found news headlines with negative words improved reading the article. Each negative word added increased the click-through rate by 2.3%.

Are There Legal Limits Coming?

The U.S. Supreme Court sent a case back to lower courts that would have addressed whether social media companies can be held accountable for others’ social media posts. A 1996 law known as Section 230 shields internet companies from what users post online. Lawsuits have been filed alleging that social media algorithms can lead to the radicalization of people leading to atrocities such as terrorist attacks and mass shootings.

The Supreme Court ruled there was little evidence tying Google, the parent company of YouTube, to the terrorist attack in Paris. The lower court ruled that claims were barred by the internet immunity law. Many internet companies warned that undoing or limiting Section 230 would break a lot of the internet tools we have come to depend upon.

While no legislation has passed there seems to be bipartisan support for new social media legislation this year like the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). KOSA would require social media companies to shield minors from dangerous content, safeguard personal information, and restrict addictive product features like endless scrolling and autoplay. Critics say KOSA would increase online surveillance and censorship.

Can Algorithms Change People’s Feelings?

A Psychological And Cognitive Sciences study found when the Facebook News Feed team tweaked the algorithm to show fewer positive posts, people’s posts became less positive. When negative posts were reduced people posted more positive posts.

Postman said we default to thinking technology is a friend. We trust it to make life better and it does. But he also warned there is a potential dark side to this friend. To avoid Postman’s fears, perhaps we need to return to McLuhan who said an artist is anyone in a professional field who grasps the implications of their actions and of new knowledge in their own time.
What do you think?

What research is there for or against the negative effects of social media on mental health and society? Should anything be done to combat the negative consequences? What can be done and who should do it?

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