Is it beneficial to avoid discussing politics on social media?
It’s been a while since social media was considered innocent. However, even after twenty years since its creation, sharing political opinions, showing support, or venting personal feelings on social media can feel like a risky move. The recent Israel-Gaza conflict has highlighted this, as people have lost jobs and friendships over their online statements.
The idea that a person’s followers all share the same opinions and beliefs is no longer a valid assumption. This may have seemed true in the past, such as in 2015 when many people changed their profile pictures to support marriage equality, or in 2020 when a large number of people posted black squares on Instagram to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, when it comes to issues related to the conflict in the Middle East, even groups with similar political views have been divided. These divisions are amplified by algorithms, lack of knowledge (as most of us are not experts on the subject), false information, and minds that are easily influenced by the polarizing effects of the internet.
Is it more beneficial to avoid sharing our opinions on social media? After researching online political expression for 15 years, James Dennis has noticed a growing hesitation to engage due to concerns about reputation. Instead, individuals are becoming “listeners” who use social media to gather political information but refrain from publicly expressing their views.
Is it possible that this could signal a return to the original purpose? After all, these platforms were initially popular for their light-hearted and practical means of connecting with friends and family. However, much has changed since then. According to Debbie Ball, a researcher on persuasive platform design and user behavior, social media has been a part of our lives for two decades now. We have become more comfortable expressing our opinions online. However, she also acknowledges that discussing political topics can sometimes lead to negative outcomes, as users can be exposed to disinformation and political campaigns from malicious actors within the platform’s ecosystem. Many social media algorithms are designed to maximize the spread of controversial content, fueling the chaos of online political discussions. Despite what major companies like Meta claim about promoting freedom of speech, their true motive is to encourage more posting and content creation in order to profit from users’ data.
Simply put, sharing political content on social media can lead to the spread of false information through keywords that may be used by campaign groups and trolls. Even if you don’t directly post anything political, simply resharing content can contribute to the spread of disinformation. This has become a concern for many, including Ball who has noticed an increase in propaganda related to her posts. The current environment on a specific platform, X, has made it easier for this to happen due to lax rules and recent changes in policies. People are now looking to Threads to see if their approach of de-emphasizing news will help combat the spread of conspiracy theories and similar content.
Users are aware of the dangers associated with social media. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2022, across 19 countries, 84% of respondents stated that they believed the accessibility of the internet and social media has made people vulnerable to being manipulated by false information and rumors. Furthermore, 70% of participants considered the spread of false information online to be a significant threat, second only to climate change. Despite this, it can be challenging to resist the urge to get involved when others are posting about a particular issue. In 2015, an analysis of data from Meta showed that individuals were more likely to change their own profile pictures in support of a cause if their friends did the same. This peer pressure was found to be a more influential factor than factors such as religion, politics, or age.
Not everyone is susceptible. And, according to Dennis, rather than airing their views publicly, many people are now having discussions on private messaging apps – “namely WhatsApp, but also direct messaging on Snapchat and Instagram for younger audiences”. Users view these channels as “safe spaces where they can have challenging conversations with close contacts, such as partners, family members, or friends”. Recently, his research has focused particularly on young people, for whom “these spaces are incredibly helpful for testing out political ideas”.
Occasionally, abstaining from sharing on social media can be seen as a statement on political beliefs: either you are apathetic or, even worse, you are hiding or denying your own biases. This position has faced criticism of its own: Ball mentions observing individuals declaring “It is acceptable to not post” in recent times.
In the end, it comes down to individual preference. Some individuals strongly believe that social media can be used to bring attention to overlooked issues or show support for those experiencing injustice. At certain times, campaigns and hashtags have had an impact and influenced political changes in the physical world. However, with the prevalence of manipulative algorithms and inadequate moderation, engaging in political discussions on platforms more concerned with profit than progress may come with risks.
The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World by Max Fisher (Quercus, £20)
“Mainstreaming Extremism: The Rise of Extremist Ideologies” by Julia Ebner, published by Bonnier for £22.
The Conspiracy Tourist: Travels Through a Strange World by Dom Joly (Little Brown, £22)