PSA: Social media does NOT represent reality

The majority of us get our news and along with it, our world view, morality, opinions, and daily furies, from scrolling the social feeds across Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, Google, and others. Given the amount of exposure, we think media reflects reality. I'm convinced that is absolutely not true. 

There were a couple of recent stories that made me realize how lopsided and low-quality social media is. 

Recently, Eric Adams got nominated for mayor of New York City. If you are on Twitter, you may have not even heard of him because of his nearly absent social media presence and measly sub-100K following. You'd have assumed that Andrew Yang, who ended up fourth in the election with just a fraction of the votes, is going to be the obvious nominee because of the #yanggang fame with 2M fervent followers. 

Another recent study revealed that just 12 people were responsible for the majority of COVID-19 vaccine-related misinformation!

If you are looking to get a balanced and complete picture of the world, social media is not where you will get it. This happens for several reasons, including: 

1. Not all people's views are expressed on social media. Only a portion of the world is on social media and in most user-generated content platforms, <10% of active users actually post content. Most are passive consumers. Some people are overexpressed as they use armies of bots, skilled agencies, paid promotions, or networks to spread their views. 

2. Not all views are equally amplified on social media. There's usually a steep power-law distribution where the top few % of viewed posts get most of the views and there's a long tail of posts that are hardly seen. Social media companies determine what gets amplified with algorithms that optimize for engagement or time spent, as they contribute most with ad revenue and customer retention. 

People and views that are extreme - enraging, shocking, untruthful, and push our buttons (like "Did we really land on the moon?") get more engagement and therefore get prioritized by the algorithms. 

3. Every single one of us has different social feeds and social media realities. Our feed is personalized to show us the posts that engage us the most - usually the ones that pander to our biases. Someone who's conservative will see a news article about how guns are our rights and someone who's liberal will see an article about why guns are causing deaths. We are put in our own bubbles, with different realities, that appeal most to us. 

So what's a better way to stay informed? 

I'm still figuring it out, but here are a couple of steps that can help. 

  • Don't get riled up and amplify nonsense! Pause, think. 
  • Assume anything is biased or wrong unless proven otherwise. Especially things that feel right to you as you may be falling for confirmation bias. Do your own research on all sides and perspectives. Most things aren't as simple as what the 140 character post of fury makes it seem like.  

  • Be deliberate about choosing the quality of your information. Seek diversity of opinions. Rely on people and media that are less reliant on daily engagement and churn, more tested, and more thoughtful. Ruthlessly unfollow purveyors of outrage. 

The Center of Humane Technology has plenty of other helpful tips