Sometimes social media is a great source for learning things, and sometimes it is not. Since my friends on Facebook range across a wide ideological spectrum, sometimes the references to the same event are so contradictory that I have no clue what “really” happened. Last month, when Joni Ernst presented one of the Republican rebuttals to Obama’s State of the Union, the disparity in responses was fascinating. Some friends made comments and posted articles that lampooned her performance, especially making light of her story about wearing bread bags to keep her shoes dry as a child. Posts from other friends described her exceptional performance, with links to articles that emphasized her success in giving a “fresh face” to the GOP. Similarly, some friends’ recent posts criticizing the movie American Sniper focused on its glorification of violence and cinematic simplification of war, while others denounced any critique of the movie as “un-American” and disrespecting the military. Having watched neither the Ernst’s rebuttal nor American Sniper, I have no first-hand knowledge of these productions. Knowing my friends, their ideological commitments, and the communities with which they identify, I can make sense of the differences, but the polar opposite representations remain quite striking.
As these conflicting comments and links to articles appear on social media, the posts cannot simply be separated from the social aspects of the form. My friends are, in part, trying to influence their friends on issues that they deem important as well as present themselves in agreement with particular positions. Thus, these posts reflect and continually construct the communities in which my friends chiefly operate. Some have been in the military or have family members currently in the military. Some are primarily involved in communities that have an ideologically liberal tinge. As some posts are reposts from others in their own community, that social, community component is directly related.
These posts become an example of what my colleague Russell McCutcheon wrote last week about the vaccination debates. As McCutcheon argues, beliefs are “an internalization of a prior social situation;” they often develop after participation in the community, confirming one’s position within a community. Thus, these examples are not simply a form of confirmation bias, (by which people pay greater attention to the elements that confirm their preconceived notions). People gravitate towards particular opinions over others and post them on social media not simply as confirmation of preconceived beliefs but as confirmation of their identification with a particular social network. In other words, the social in social media includes social pressure to agree with the common view within one’s community, which then reinforces the belief and the pressure to believe for the individual and others in the community. This is not to suggest that we are all simply a blank slate and our opinions about Ernst’s performance or American Sniper develop from what we hear about them from our friends. Rather, the ideological positions that develop the confirmation bias are something that we have developed socially and that become reinforced socially.