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Groupthink and social media: A zeitgeist of mechanical solidarity?

November 17, 2012

One of the most important things I teach my students is to become good consumers of information. This means not regurgitating sound bytes and conclusions that have been fed to the masses by way of propaganda and unverified facts. In other words, find out firsthand and don’t merely accept something because so-and-so said it’s true. Forming one’s own version of the truth is a lot of work but it’s necessary due to the barrage of electronic information available. Multiple [quality] sources should be checked before one expects to assert a rational argument that can be effectively persuasive. Credibility matters.

Janis’s theory of groupthink [1, 2, 3] has gone through multiple iterations over the past 40 years. Turner and Pratkanis [4] report that Janis’s latest revision of groupthink theory “hypothesizes that decision making groups are most likely to experience groupthink when they are highly cohesive, insulated from experts, perform limited search and appraisal of information, operate under directed leadership, and experience conditions of high stress with low self-esteem and little hope of finding a better solution to a pressing problem than that favored by the leader or influential members” (p. 105-106).

Is social media not the ultimate vehicle for facilitating groupthink? If an affirmative answer to the rhetorical question can be accepted even as somewhat plausible, then it follows that social media represents an ultimate vehicle for manipulation and/or control. At the heart of the matter is the inability/ability for individuals to make up their own minds despite groupthink, hive mind, and/or herd behavior with an added contemporary challenge manifesting through social media.

Tsikerdekis [5] argues that “social experience could be engineered through software” (p. iv) despite the fact that researcher’s findings suggest that “the states where respondents used their real names and completely [sic] anonymity produced similar results and did not affect responses” (p. 88). Tsikerdekis explains that “The online nature of the environment for social interaction that is provided by social media seems to amplify disinhibition which can potentially lead to aggression” (p. 79). In simple terms this means that individual opinions may be stronger in online interactions and may precipitate various levels of conflict and even aggression, depending upon emotional motivations and reactions.

Using Facebook as an example, consider your list of friends. How many would “unfriend” you if they found your opinions/beliefs didn’t agree with their own? Does this situation not represent a potential chilling effect upon the expression of one’s opinions for the sake of appeasement? While I view Facebook as an amusement where meaningful dialogue may  or may not transpire, it’s important to note that I couldn’t care less about a particular individual’s opinion as nobody will make up my mind on my behalf. On the other hand, if credible evidence is provided, I’ll at least listen.

In general, many things designed to persuade, scare, compel or otherwise intimidate others into similar beliefs are posted on the Internet. I posit that rarely are posts fact-checked by the person who posts or re-posts. Is the root of the problem found in one’s level/quality of formal education? Not entirely. The manifestation of the problem is found in computer-mediated communication through social media that forms a zeitgeist of mechanical solidarity [6] where disagreement is socially unacceptable.

The unfortunate trend seems to be that many in society have become unwilling or unable to cultivate independent, well-informed viewpoints based upon evidence rather than hearsay. I often wonder how many have read every single page of [hypothetical] legislation that they argue about on social media. After all, individual opinions are (still) a constitutional right in the U.S. and informed viewpoints, based upon primary research (e.g. reading legislation firsthand), should be a benefit of the Internet. Availability of information aside, I theorize that many would never take the initiative to check.

As a college professor I find it shocking that many individuals resist learning to think critically because they want to be told what to think, inside and/or outside of the classroom. My job is to never, ever to tell students what to think but rather to provide frameworks to ask questions, find a span of quality sources (not just those that mirror what one wants to believe), play devil’s advocate, listen to opposing viewpoints while withholding judgment, learn continuously, use available tools and for the sake of humanity: think.

Question everything. Don’t be a sheep – or worse yet, a zombie sheep. ::shudders::

References

[1] Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[2] Janis, I.L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd. ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Janis, I.L. (1989). Crucial decisions: Leadership in policymaking and crisis management. New York: The Free Press.

[4] Turner, M., and Pratkanis, A. (1998). Twenty-five years of groupthink theory and research: Lessons from the evaluation of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2/3), 105-115. Retrieved from http://carmine.se.edu/cvonbergen/Twenty-Five%20Years%20of%20Groupthink%20Theory%20and%20Research_Lessons%20from%20the%20Evaluation%20of%20a%20Theory.pdf

[5] Tsikerdekis, M. (2012). Social interaction design for social media: The case of groupthink and aggression (Doctoral dissertation). Masaryk University, Czech Republic. Retrieved from http://is.muni.cz/th/346392/fi_d/fithesis.pdf

[6] Durkheim, E. (1997) The division of labor in society. Trans. Lewis A. Coser. New York: Free Press.

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