Does social media bring out the worst? Looking at the structure of platforms

The vast majority of study on group dynamics focuses on identifying types of social groups, how they form, the roles and activities within them, and establishes practical methods of group management to prevent a group from stagnating or disbanding; however, this exploration excludes social media, and how the structure of differing social media apps and sites create groups that either contributes to or varies from established group dynamics. Some apps may completely eliminate key group roles, causing certain theories about why groups form to become irrelevant. For example, if an app or platform does not allow people to group or “tag” entries by keyword, it becomes impossible to organize any group of followers or fans around that interest, almost ensuring that the special interest model of group formation becomes moot. Some other platforms allow organization around central concepts or interests, but discourage certain types of participation. For example, an app that makes it very difficult to share information to followers can completely destroy the cohesiveness of a group. Some platforms however, seem to encourage members of groups to occupy specific roles, just based on structure alone.

Group types are classified either as formal or informal, and are established primarily based upon the focus of the group—interest group, task oriented group, reference groups, and friendship groups are examples. Members tend to fall into a list of roles based on tasks or their dynamic with the group—roles that either maintain cohesion of the group, or can lead to its disbanding. Certain social media platforms could actually be selecting for one type of role over another, simply based on structure alone. This selection process can be large or small scale, or function differently on one scale than the other. An example would be any platform that allows larger groups to break into smaller groups—smaller subgroups behave differently than larger, and when decisions within smaller groups reach consensus, that opinion may clash with the larger group, causing disharmony. That disharmony tests the structure of the larger group and its ability to satisfactorily deal with concerns and make changes.

A platform like Facebook, is structured around a person’s real world identity, linking them to their existing contacts via associations. Friends of friends can connect to one another, but it’s seldom that complete strangers connect with one another. This ensures that each user sees a somewhat different side of people that are a part of their everyday life. It can cause real world relationships to break down over ideological issues. The commenting structure attributes the words said directly to the user and posts made are put up on the user’s “wall” again attributed by name. This kind of linkage to the real world often moderates behavior in some ways, but affects the types of things discussed. Facebook, in particular, because of its familial linkage, can actually create a strange interaction between weak and strong actors, creating friction for the user—for example, wondering what will happen if your mother begins talking through your wall, to a friend who knows some of your secrets.

Some social media platforms allow group discussions, while some merely adhere to a more standard structure of call-and-response—individual posts that can receive comments or likes. Some allow private versus public communication, and some allow the user to tailor the structure of their profile, to select for certain kinds of experiences.

But the real question is, can the structure of an app or platform not only help a group to form, but also select for odd dynamics, or ensure its fragmentation and breakdown. This question extends even further, into notions about what it may mean to communicate across platforms, where culture varies. The question brings up social issues about media exposure, polarization with real world consequences, and the overall experience of benefit received by the user. Are some social media apps simply designed in a way that brings out the worst in group members?

As groups begin to experience internal difficulties with dynamics— either surrounding an inability to agree to organization, or a disagreement about the goals, etc.—members fall into certain roles that are so predictable as to have names and general behavioral types. Roles that interfere with the cohesion of the group are called blocking roles.

The Aggressor – this role can actually vary considerably, but the overall behavior is ad hominem attack. This person can express disagreement with fundamental group values, be overly sarcastic, actively argue with the feelings or ideas of others, joke aggressively, tear down the status of other members, or dispute previously solved issues anew.

The Dominator – these members primarily assert control over others based on rank or asserted knowledge, They often engage in manipulative behaviors to attempt to acquire control over some section of the group—often to then leverage that smaller group against the cohesion of the larger group.

The Blocker – Blockers are stubbornly resistant to consensus, negativist, pessimistic, and refuse to accept group decisions, bringing them up repeatedly.

The Playboy – this person makes a show of their unwillingness to participate in the groups structure and maintenance. They often express cynicism of any compromise and will constantly absolve themselves of guilt if things “go badly”.

The Special Interest Pleader – this person engages in constant hair-splitting on behalf of a smaller segment of the group, or even a presumed segment for which there is no active membership. Through argument and persuasion, they succeed in making small points which have very little relevance to the group, into larger issues.

The Recognition Seeker – this person boasts constantly, will not admit wrong doing, refuses to be put in positions of lower status, they often engage in manipulation to keep control, if forced from it.

The Self-Confessor – makes use of the public stage to offer their own feelings or agendas which have little, if nothing, to do with the group’s stated purpose. This can throw off group dynamic and cause members feel socially obliged. This behavior also allows difficulties to be kicked-up whenever the person’s opinions contradict the group.

The Help Seeker – this person expresses overlarge feelings of uncertainty, confusion, self-deprecation, and other forms of manipulation to sway the group with sympathy.

Once these roles begin to appear within the group dynamic, it’s a fairly obvious sign that breakdown has begun. Any one of these roles can trigger the beginnings of a cascade effect toward polarization, which almost inevitably causes the group to fall apart. Recognizing these types of behavior can be an opportunity for group organizers to make changes that improve the robustness of group structure, but social media platforms that interfere with the leaders’ ability to adapt would prevent positive action. Indeed, some platform structures can actually encourage and select for negative cascades.

A good example of this is Tumblr, which allows any person not specifically blocked by the poster, to rebroadcast their negative opinions to their entire followership. This then can branch outward, each successive negative comment reblogged, going to another set of readers. This causes a traceable cascade effect toward polarization. It also actively selects for the specific roles listed above, as controversy tends to attract more attention. Tumblr’s ask feature also allows for anonymity, which encourages certain members of a fandom or followership to take up any of these roles from a place of relative social safety. Yes, this feature can be turned on or off, but it is still built into the platform. The structure of attribution also ensures that the poster receives notifications every time a reply or mention is made, which can ensure that every dissenting opinion becomes more relevant to the poster than is statistically warranted. Post structure, like Twitter, almost ensures that some posts become swift memetic movers or “viral”, exposing the poster to a variety of outside opinions that may influence the internal dynamics of their group or “followership”

Platforms that focus primarily on visuals like pictures or recordings often allow commentary among users. This creates whole new dynamics, particularly with regard to feelings of closeness to the content creator. Fan clubs are classified as “research groups” as they surround a primary interest but are not devoted to any task or action except appreciating, consequently, the opinion coming in is already polarized. An actor’s fan club, for example, is going to be devoted to that actor—“Stans”—and the group dynamic will be overtly and obviously unfriendly to anyone calling the actor’s behaviors into question. Thus, if a member of the group “defects”, the response to it will contain some portion of the behaviors described above. Platforms that facilitate commenting and tagging, naturally contribute to this. A good example of this would be “make up gurus“ of YouTube and the “drama channels” that follow them. The comments allow for stans of the creator to actively engage in arguments with those either pointing out problematic behavior, or expressing a dissenting opinion.

In standard group dynamics, the blocking roles are often integral to the polarization process—through which a group attains a single, extreme opinion on an issue—by attempting to steer the discussion through emotional manipulation. As said in a previous entry, when an agreement is reached about the central issue before the group, all other questions that arise within the group will obey the same behavioral models, simply because of precedent. The constant presence of people occupying those blocking roles will signal the disintegration of the group.

The primary focus of social media companies was always to build platforms that would contribute to connection, facilitate people coming together around specific issues, their every day lives, shared beliefs. I’m uncertain that much thought was put into how the structure of each app or platform would interfere with longer-term social networks. Facebook was only begun in 2004, Tumblr is 9, and so no long term data exists to measure group flux. How many times the platform assists a group in forming is immaterial, if it constantly also leads to the same groups disbanding. The more intimate the platform, the more insular. The more robust and connective the platform, the more negative behaviors are allowed to impact the core of a group. Most participants only think about their platforms as being a means to an end—a way to connect with others. They seldom consider that in fact, they may be exposing themselves to an environment built to cause constant social flux. If, as previously said in an earlier entry, a person has become ostracized or disconnected from their real life, and has inverted the relationship between weak and strong bonds, a platform that allows such flux could be inherently dangerous to the user for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the constant exposure to negativity.

More study on how the platform structure affects the group dynamics is needed.

How digital insular social groups polarize and change behavior

Many people feel ostracized or alone in their everyday lives, a somewhat obvious thing to say. The internet has nooks and crannies and often people who have been on the fringes can find peers there. The anonymity offers equality—everyone is the same, and the etiquette is set both by the structure of the program, and by the ideological survival landscape—who is there. In a network like the defunct podium app, for example, white nationalists were more common and so the etiquette included all the common things you might expect from bigoted groups. On places like tumblr, ideas tend toward the liberal, and the etiquette becomes more astringently cautious about offense.

In sociology, social contagion theory specifically, relationships are described as either weak bonds/ties/actors or strong bonds/ties/actors. A weak actor is something that cannot change your behavior. For most people, what someone says on the internet is a weak actor, and a strong actor is a family member or a close friend. But on the internet, in these corners where outsiders collect, the relationship is often inverted. The rest of the world is a weak actor, and the anonymous people they’ve never met become strong actors on their behavior, their thoughts, their actions.

This is why the kind of social engineering being done by the Russians is so effective and dangerous, how it leads to insurrections and mob violence. It’s not merely that people believe things they see/hear more than once, or their assumptions about viable sources. It’s also that for many people, the cyberspace enclaves they populate become strong actors on their ideas. But the root of it is belonging. They don’t feel as if they belong, they feel like they are divided from others, they feel invisible in their everyday lives, they feel like their opinions aren’t heard or they cannot express themselves openly, and so the group they do have, becomes critically important. It’s also true that most outside information like news or random facts are usually absorbed through weak ties, because those casual acquaintances move in other circles and bring information back like bees returning to a hive. This is how internet social groups become insular—A space full of strong actors with no outside information. And as has been studied many times, insular groups tend toward polarized opinions—in this case not referring to duality, but an extreme perspective.

If a group focuses on a topic, they’re often referred to as deliberating groups. “As polarization gets underway, the group members become more reluctant to bring up items of information they have about the subject that might contradict the emerging group consensus. The result is a biased discussion in which the group has no opportunity to consider all the facts, because the members are not bringing them up.”1 Often deliberating becomes highly susceptible to localized “cascade effects” in which a piece or pieces of information, true or false, are spread through the group by higher status members on down the hierarchy (this status determined by expertise, age, presumed knowledge or any number of factors). Those with very little private information are overtaken by this cascade through informational externality– or the acceptance of the verity of facts based on a lack of desire to engage in confrontation, a presumption that the others know more, or that they must be wrong somehow. Often as ideas become more extreme, pressure is applied to conform, and members will allow even their own senses to be denied, in order to not be seen as part of the contested idea. This is called reputational externality. Both are means by which information is spread from one member of the group to another. Essentially, a cascade is so forceful it can often be seen as mimicking viral modeling. But acceptance of influence, susceptibility to it, isn’t uniform. It’s more likely to be uniform, if the deliberating group is a strong actor on a persons life. Meaning that if the group is seen as important to the person, their threshold for allowing a cascade to hit them is much lower.

“A further specific characteristic behavior within group dynamics is “groupthink”. It’s the phenomena within polarized groups, where concurrence-seeking and cohesiveness becomes so dominant that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternatives. Groupthink replaces independent critical thinking. That results in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against opposing groups.”2

In other words, deliberating groups, through complex dynamics, produce one uniform polarized answer, and if that group has become a strong actor on an individual…it changes behavior often in ways that mobilize them to be hateful or abusive.

But it’s all rather flimsy in actuality, because of that distance and anonymity. The lack of actual connection breeches many of the evolved cues of bonding—meaning the physical aspects of it like proximity, physical contact, hormone triggers for oxytocin, body language and so on. Without personal contact or a subject to deliberate, such groups usually collapse. To prevent that collapse, group leaders will often organize contact in the form of rallies, or protests. However, in social groups that are exclusively online, the groupthink produces things like retaliation campaigns such as letter writing, spamming, and negative press or reviews. The stronger an actor the group is in a member’s life, the more important the ideas generated within it become, until eventually, some see it as necessary to act independently on those ideas.

“…in a clinical study of 144 individuals who had threatened some form of violence against others, 8 were found to have threatened mass homicide… All 8 subjects said they had intended to kill as many people as possible, and all cases involved targeting a specific group against whom the would-be perpetrator held a grievance. Over the 12-month study period, none of the 8 subjects carried out or attempted to carry out their plans. However, 2 of the 8 assaulted a person unrelated to the targeted group.” 3

Obviously mass shootings are a rarer example of such actions, and are a statistical outlier. However, recent events make them a topic worth including. Extreme opinions and the group dynamics that help them to proliferate are caustic to the psyche. Often the group dynamic breaks down the filters and rational safeguards that inhibit action. As the social group becomes more of a strong actor in a person’s life, the ideas built there also become central. Without satisfactory organized paths or directions for the ideas, the groups do not often maintain cohesion. This collapse can also potentially function as a trigger for behavior, sometimes not even against the initial target of concern, by removing the support for those central ideas, something which could only exist in that deliberating group dynamic. Members are left with only an extreme idea, and a reality that cannot ever support it. This discrepancy is an obvious trigger also.

Understanding how the inversion of weak and strong ties happens, understanding how deliberating bodies work and what rules might be in place to prevent polarizing opinions, being able to see how these things are impacted or impact a digital landscape would be very useful indeed. Many of these things have undergone statistical analysis and can be somewhat predicted. Further research is needed.

1. “Deliberative trouble: why groups go extreme” Cass Sunstrin

2. “How social media causes disruptive group dynamics” Tony Saldanha

3. “Mass Shootings and Mental Illness” Agnes, Knoll