We live in a society that relies on technology for communication, gratification, and more. There has been a shift from strictly face-to-face interactions to a world where everyone has an ever increasing online presence. Social paradigms that were seen in these face-to-face interactions have crossed over into an online world and play a more widespread role now than ever before. Some of these social paradigms include the conformity, dissenter, and bystander effects seen in a study done by Anderson, Bresnanan, and Musatics (2014). Where someone or something may have had an influence on others’ behavior or thinking in the past has changed. The people who used to influence us were those around us, small circles of people who usually had similar views and ideals as one another. With this shift, influence is more far reaching than ever before. Millions of people can now be seen, heard, and have the power to influence others and it is all at our fingertips. The purpose of this study is to look at how these interactions on social media play a role in influencing our thoughts and actions.
The conformity effect is one’s tendency to follow in the thoughts or actions of a group. Since, in the past, our interactions were limited to those around us, we were only exposed to those in our in our immediate circles. How did this change when this new era of technology and social media began to take off? A study done by Anderson, Bresnanan, and Musatics (2014) explores this paradigm in the realm of Facebook. Facebook has become one of the largest social media platforms of our generation. It is now seen as a tool to communicate with people in ways we otherwise would not be able to in the past. We post photos, statuses on our current events and emotions, and either comment on or like other people’s posts that we may not be able to see often. In this study, they made a Facebook post in which an overweight, yet attractive, female was pictured surrounded by junk food.
The participants were given this post with comments on them ranging from a full set of bullying comments to a couple of bullying comments and some positive dissenter comments. Interestingly enough, the conformity effect was shown in this study because many of the participants who were only shown the negative comments chose to comment negative things as well. This effect was also shown in the group with positive dissenter comments, as those who saw a couple of people opposing the negativity decided to do so as well. Many people may not be aware of how others’ reactions to something like a Facebook comment may affect their own, but it is clear that even those who may not have had bad intentions were more inclined to say something negative if the majority had done so as well. This is displayed in another study done by Egebark and Ekstrom (2018) in which Facebook was used as well. In this particular study, they tested conformity as well.
The participants were shown a Facebook post and the researchers wanted to see whether they would conform and like it as well based on three conditions: whether one stranger, three strangers, or one friend liked the post as well. The results were in line with the previous study mentioned in terms of the way the conformity effect takes place on social media. The findings showed that the size of the influencing group and friendship both matter and pushed the participants toward liking the post as well. This is something we can see in our daily lives as well. If a lot of people like a post on a social media site, we are more inclined to like it ourselves. If one of our friends likes it, we are even more inclined because their opinion has meaning to us. The size of the group involved and the relationship to anyone in that group has the potential to sway one’s opinion into conformity.
Although it may not be at the forefront of our decision making consciously, the thoughts and preferences expressed by others sway us to change our minds subconsciously. Through social media, these thoughts expressed by others are easily accessible and put everyone who has the ability to view another’s online presence in a position to be persuaded by them. In a study concerning online reviews put up on Amazon, it was found that even when it comes to reviews, our brains encode the opinion of the majority and compare one’s own opinion to it (Zhao, Zhang, & Wen, 2019). Amazon is not a social media site, but gives the user the ability to rate and review any products they have purchased, giving the reviewer the power to sway a future buyer. One may expect that the conformity effect would be prevalent on social media websites, but it may not be as obvious that other people’s views effect what you may or may not purchase.
This may be especially true if an overwhelming amount of people give a positive review, as the results of this study showed that positive reviews proved to be more helpful in the opinions of the participants. This can also be seen when people are given others’ opinions of a product, even if they have already stated their preference (Zhu & Huberman, 2014). When given the opportunity to change their minds after given the opinions of others on products, people actually changed their minds when given some time in between choices. Social conformity tends to play a role in what we choose when we go to choose between two items and eventually, decide to make a purchase. If what we experience online has the power to influence our thoughts, actions, and emotions, what can’t it influence?
In a study done by Kelly, Ngo, Chituc, Huettel, and Sinnott-Armstrong (2017) they tackle this question in an interesting way. The others studies mentioned have shown that conformity can be seen in nearly every interaction we have on social media, whether we are aware of it or not. In this study, the researchers show the participants two scenarios on a computer set up as in a social media setting, as well as the statistics of how other people reacted to the scenarios they were shown. Although the two scenarios were situations no one would ever want to agree with, when forced to choose between the two, participants agreed more when presented with statistics which had rational justifications. Nonetheless, this shaped their moral judgment. It is interesting to think that, despite these interactions not being traditional, they can shape our experiences. Even our moral values can change based on what we see others post and whether the majority agrees with them.
Fake news seems to be a term we hear quite often in our lives now. Whether it be on social media or on the news, this phrase is constantly thrown around in an accusatory manor by different entities, some trying to clear falsehoods and others trying to sway the opinions of the masses. Nowadays, these accusations can push people into a particular vote during an election, which can greatly influence the outcome of our country if many people are swayed similarly. Another study which was done on conformity bridged the gap between fake news and conformity. In this study, a Facebook page was used which posted real news articles but added their own fake news component to them (Colliander, 2019).
On these posts, different comments were posted and showed to different groups of participants: one with comments debunking the accusations made and claiming it was fake news, one with comments that agreed with and confirmed the allegations, and another in which the commenters shamed the original posting of the article. The results were clear in showing that when more people in the comments openly opposed the poster and claimed what they posted was fake news, participants were more inclined to believe it was fake news as well. It is important to note that conformity in this particular case goes beyond personal opinion and can affect the outcome of important events, like elections as stated previously.
In the generations that came before technology, social paradigms were specific to those who surrounded them, whether that be in their country, city, or community. With the ability to reach any part of the world via the internet and experience other people’s opinions, we experience the conformity in aspects of our lives where we may believe we are making an independent choice. Subconsciously, we are being affecting by many things online that push us to make decisions we may not make otherwise.