Bioethics Blogs

How Social Media Distorts Our Perceptions of Groups.

We know that groups are internally diverse. For any group you care to pick out (Brexit supporters, feminists, tea drinkers), we know intellectually that they will disagree among themselves about a great deal. When people identify as a group member, they may feel pressure to conform to the group view, but there are countervailing pressures in the other direction which limit the effects of group conformity. Disputes internal to groups are often as – or more – heated than those between them.

But social media, I suspect, leads us to see group members as more alike – and as worse – than they are actually are. Take this for example. On the Fourth of July, NPR tweeted out the entire US Declaration of Independence. Some Trump supporters saw the tweets as an attack on Trump, apparently seeing the declaration of a right to overthrow a tyrannical government as a call for his overthrow (initially, at least, they seemed not to realize that the words came from the Declaration). The episode is amusing, and because it is amusing it has received a lot of coverage. It went viral on social media, especially (I bet) among those people who are strongly anti-Trump. Similarly, a racist joke by a Tory councillor recently went viral after she made it on Facebook.

These things go viral for a reason. They have the kind of properties – such as arousing emotional response – that make stories memorable and more likely to be repeated. Of course, most of the tweets of most people aren’t memorable.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.