We’re going to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but social media sites are pulling your strings. It’s not necessarily deliberate or evil, though.
All social media platforms are a mix of freely flowing information and the power of social proof, and that mix can sway you without you even realizing it.
Here are the various ways social media manipulates you and your opinions.
Bots Determine What’s Popular and Trending
Are you more likely to follow an Instagram account that has 30,000 followers or an account that has 300? Are you more likely to click on a Twitter link that has 58,000 likes or just 58 likes? Social proof is a factor influencing your decisions, and on social media it can easily be faked.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, up to two thirds of links shared on Twitter are shared by bots. In other words, bots shared twice as many links as actual humans with keyboards.
Even after multiple purges, Instagram may still have 95 million bot accounts, which is 10 percent of its total user base.
With so many bots posing as people on the internet, such benchmarks of popularity as followers, likes, comments, and shares hardly mean anything anymore. And yet we’re hard-wired to trust them.
Falling for the fake numbers can be harmless—so what if you assume a viral video is fun because it was shared 2 million times? But with explosive topics like politics or religion, bot-fueled social media trends can have a real impact. From affecting voter opinions to spreading dangerous health myths, bots cause way more trouble that spamming your photos with useless comments.
Your Feed Shields You From Uncomfortable Ideas
Remember that time you muted Uncle Seymour on Facebook because he wouldn’t stop ranting about immigration? Or unfriended that guy you went to highschool with, because his sexist comments kept popping up in your feed?
Being exposed to ideas you disagree with is unsettling. So much so that in a social psychology study [PDF link] by Jeremy Frimer, Linda Skitka, and Matt Motyl, participants refused to read a set of statements they objected to even for additional monetary compensation.
If people are willing to forgo extra cash just to avoid hearing out the opponent, why wouldn’t they kick the opponent out of their Facebook feeds?
Your feed, however, is shaped not only by the people you follow, but also by the kind of posts you like, share, and comment on. The algorithm analyzes your activity and then shows you the posts you’re likely to engage with—which tend to be the posts you already agree with.
That means that when you scroll your feed, you’re unlikely to see anything that counters your beliefs. Your feed becomes an echo chamber, giving you a distorted idea of public opinion.
Instagram Misshapes Your Idea of Beauty
What’s hot and what’s not used to be defined by the fashion industry, and monopolized by it. But Instagram has handed over the reins to ordinary men and women, allowing them to share what they deem beautiful.
In theory, that should have led to a more colorful, more realistic depiction of beauty, giving people of different races, shapes, and sizes an equal share of the spotlight. And to be fair, many are using the platform to change our perception of imperfect skin and not-quite-model bodies.
But for most women, Instagram is a source of anxiety and pressure, just like glossy magazines used to be. As reported by Women in the World, in 2015 Dove surveyed over 1,000 women, revealing that 25 percent said social media influenced their idea of beauty, and 78 percent felt social media didn’t portray women realistically.
As long as apps designed to erase pimples and slap six-packs onto bodies get millions of downloads, the Instagram ideal will be comprised of faux fitness and digitally enhanced skin. And whether you like it or not, those ever-perfect faces are likely to affect how you feel about your own.
Travel Photos Set Unrealistic Expectations
With 385 million posts tagged #travel, Instagram is where people go for trip inspiration and planning. It’s where you gawk at sunset pictures before your Bali vacation and soak up some gothic mood when planning a trip to Prague.
Except, many of those photos look nothing like reality.
In a 2018 study by Allianz Global Assistance, 36 percent of millennials admitted they’ve tried to deceive their followers by posting unrealistic travel pictures. Whether it’s to make friends jealous or to compete with other vacationers, people on social media are trying to make their trips look better that they are.
Ironically, over half of millennials said that posts on social media influence their travel choices, and 86 percent of all respondents, regardless of age, still trust the photos their friends and family post.
So if you choose your next travel destination based on how good it looks on Instagram, you might be in for a disappointment. Because sometimes the squares of Rome will be jam-packed with tourists, and the beaches of Sri Lanka will be littered with trash—while you’ve been trained by social media to expect nothing less than perfection.
Can You Stop Yourself Being Manipulated?
What you see in your social media feeds is going to impact what you have on your mind, especially if on some level you’re happy to be deceived. Because let’s face it: it’s comforting to think that everyone agrees with you on a divisive issue, or that somewhere in the world there are pixel-perfect beaches for you to walk on.
But if you want to escape that sweet, sweet deception, the first step is to admit it’s happening. Then, to try and break out of your information bubble, question the numbers you see online, fact-check the quotes, and seek out realistic photos of the places you want to visit. In other words, don’t believe everything you read online.
You could delete your entire social media presence—which is a radical move, considering how much everything from job searches to friendships is tied into social networks. However, the occasional social media detox is a more sensible way to stay grounded in reality.