This week, public attention coalesced around Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimonies admitting Facebook’s role in disseminating fake news, especially during the 2016 presidential election. As Prof. Keith Hampton from Michigan State University’s Department of Media and Information explained Thursday afternoon, social media can intensify hyper-partisan views with self-selection. Hampton discussed his research on social media, its impact on the psychological state and decreasing democratic participation in front of more than 20 students and faculty gathered in North Quad Residence Hall.
Hampton gave an overview of some of the societal changes sparked by the rise of social media. He said some aspects of pre-industrial society, such as a high awareness of other people’s lives and the use of social shaming, have returned due to online social platforms through tactics like cyber-bullying. Hampton also mentioned social media makes relationships easier to maintain.
Hampton noted a few key areas of research on the societal impact of social media that interested him, such as the effects of internet usage on the willingness to participate in political debates. He presented his findings from a 2014 study that asked participants to respond to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s release of information on the National Security Agency.
Hampton said social media doesn’t encourage people to forgo face-to-face conversation in favor of online discussion — only 0.3 percent of participants said they would be willing to talk about the issue online but not in person in his research. The study did, however, find people who used Facebook more frequently ranked themselves as less willing to discuss the issue in public, stemming from the fact that social media increases users’ awareness of other people’s political stances.
“As you see that your neighbor carries an AK-47 when he’s not in your neighborhood and walks around with it, you may be less willing to talk about gun control with that person,” Hampton said. “When you see that your neighbor has that ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, you may be less willing to have a conversation with that neighbor about politics because now you don’t believe that you share a common belief.”
Hampton also discussed how online platforms impact social stress, which comes from increased awareness of people’s lives. In 2016, Hampton and his colleagues published a paper reporting women who used social media more often were 20 percent more aware of negative events in other people’s lives like divorces and job losses. These women simultaneously ranked themselves as more aware of negative events. Men, whom Hampton jokingly described as “less aware and callous,” were reportedly not affected in the same way.
“It could be that social media users, or users of these technologies in general, are more aware of these events happening in the lives of people around them, and that as a result of that awareness, it becomes contagious.” Hampton said. “We call this the cost of caring. This is a known finding in psychological literature that when you are aware of bad things happening to people in your life, it makes you stressed.”
When speaking about psychological distress, Hampton mentioned a 2017 article from The Atlantic popularizing the belief that social media invariably worsens mental health. The article included a graph showing a drop in teenage social activity around 2007, the year the iPhone was released. Hampton said the graph was flawed for several reasons, but especially because it obscured the data, hiding many years of dips and peaks in teens’ mental health. In fact, Hampton’s team found psychological distress declines with internet and social media use, from data collected by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
Lastly, Hampton talked about the intersection of social media, awareness and tolerance. According to Hampton, the 2016 election exposed the level of racial intolerance present in certain sectors of the U.S. population.
Hampton said youth who leave rural areas may experience changes in their level of tolerance as they enter more diverse environments or gain education.
“Beginning a very long time ago, there was a clear storyline of youths leaving rural areas for cities,” Hampton said. “They become more tolerant, because social mixing is higher, educational attainment is higher, they move from blue-collar jobs into the middle class, and tolerance goes up.”
Hampton said he and his team hope to investigate how social media connects these youth with their family and friends in rural areas, and whether the tolerance of either party is affected by this electronic communication.
Andre Brock, assistant professor of communication studies, said he was surprised by the data showing social media use decreases psychological distress, considering what he knows about race and social media consumption. Brock cited a Pew Research Center study that reported white people post and view race-related content online much less than people of color. As troubling race-related media such as videos of police brutality go viral, Brock said, Americans of color might experience more psychological distress than whites. He suggested Hampton’s research, which defined psychological distress based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, may not have left room for participants to report racial stressors.
“Going all the way to measures of DSM-level stress is very different from the everyday stress that Black and Brown folk have to deal with online all the time,” Brock said. “Is it possible that the ways in which they were asking questions tends to gloss over racial differences?”
Rackham student Stewart Coles said he came to the event because of his connection to the department and because of his interest in the topic. Coles echoed some of Brock’s concerns about digging deeper into the connections between race and social media.
“I’m not terribly surprised by some of the results regarding awareness of people’s opinions,” Coles said. “At the same time, I do have questions — I asked one — regarding how this works across various issues and between people of different demographic groups, based on research that I’m conducting and also research that I know that other people are conducting.”