Wednesday, August 02, 2017

What Are You Signalling When You Post, Share and Like Online?

In the online world everything that you post, comment, share or like is a signal. Consciously or unconsciously you provide cues and signals to others online.

What does our online signalling behaviour mean for political discussion, engagement and sharing on social media? Does it lead ineluctably to more division and extreme views? There is some academic evidence that it does.

Online signalling

In navigating the world we use signals and cues to inform us, for example, is someone nice, trustworthy, employable, etc. We may use visual signals such as someone's clothes, height or age as much as what they say. Increasingly though we only know someone people online and have never met them in real life.

According to academic research in a real life personal network the number of people "varies from the low 30s (Hogan, Carrasco, and Wellman, 2007) through to the upper 60s (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006; McCarty, Bernard, Killworth, Shelley, & Johnsen, 1997) to upwards of 150 (Roberts, Dunbar, Pollet, & Kuppens, 2008), but rarely if ever above that." Bernie Hogan, The Presentation of Self.  However, many people these days have more than 200 friends online, some may have thousands.

We make judgements about these people we only know online, and also about the people we have met in real life, using online signals. These signals may include how many friends someone has, who their friends are, how they interact with their friends, how often they post, what they share, the words they use etc. These cues and signals help us form an impression of someone even if we have never met them.

Online authenticity

Social signalling expert Judith Donath describes online authenticity as actions that which were not intended to signal something or manipulate our impressions.  In judging whether something is authentic, it seems we assess whether it is being done for its own sake i.e. for reasons other than making an impression.

If we want to be seen as authentic or genuine this may lead us to consciously, or unconsciously, try to make our online actions look like they are not signals. In the case of politicians or marketers they may use say a video of a 'real user' or user generated content or ask influencers to share content so that the content sharing appears authentic.

Virtue signalling

The reverse of authenticity is something called virtue signaling. This is where someone shares something or expresses an opinion to demonstrate their good character or standing within a group. Academic studies have shown that people will share a charity fundraising page without actually donating themselves. The purpose of their online activity is primarily about communicating they are a good person. What is interesting is whether this is also true in politics, for example, might people share an article supporting a political position even if they themselves do not actually share the same view.

Tribal signalling and reinforcement

Tribal sharing is where someone shares to enhance their standing in a group or to simply to show they are part of the tribe. I have a concern that the tribal dynamics of social media may be shaping political discussion and activity, and not for the better.

For example, when sharing or liking content for the purpose of tribal sharing, it is possible that more extreme content may be the most effective in signaling you are a member of the tribe. As Judith Donath explains in this CNN article it doesn't matter so much if the story is fake or dubious if it reinforces your place in the tribe. What matters is that the act of sharing cements your position in the tribe. In fact sharing a false or questionable story may actually enhance your standing as it shows your faith and commitment.

Proving you are a member of a tribe can also lead to more extreme views. For example, posting a balanced comment saying there are some good points in the other camp's position or viewpoint is not the best way to reinforce your position in a tribe. If you want to signal your tribal commitment it may be better to post something along the lines that you hate what another politician or party is doing, or you are outraged by their decisions.

Echo chambers and extreme views

I am personally not taken with some of the arguments about echo chambers. There is evidence that people are exposed to a wider range of views via Facebook for example, than in their local community or reading a particular newspaper. However, there is evidence that your views can become more extreme if you do live in an echo chamber where all your social media friends have similar views.

Cass Sunstein in his book 2002 book, Risk and Reason analyzed information cascades and group polarization. He observed that in a group a person may want to earn social approval or avoid disapproval. In such a case if a group is alarmed by something say Brexit or Fracking Or immigration or the election of Trump, Sunstein argues individuals may not voice their doubts about whether the alarm is merited, simply in order not to seem obtuse, difficult or indifferent. He says "sometimes people take to speaking and acting as if they share, or at least do not reject, what they view as the dominant belief. .. the outcome may be the cleansing of public discourse of unusual perceptions, arguments, and actions."

I think more importantly Sunstein observed that when like-minded people are talking mostly to one another their discussions will move them, not to the middle, but to a more extreme point of view. He says "If members of a group tend to believe that for cancer, the serious dietary problem lies in the use of pesticides, those same people will tend, after discussion, to have a heightened fear of pesticide use." This is an example of group polarization which Sunstien describes as "a process by which people engaged in process of deliberation end up thinking a more extreme version of what they already thought."

The political impact of online signalling

It does appear that both tribal signalling and participation in like-minded social networks (even if not true echo chambers) can lead to the sharing of more extreme political viewpoints and the sharing of content of dubious origin or false content.

I am not sure if this is correct but it does appear consistent with my experience of social media and political discussions.

So what are you signalling when you share, comment or like a post on Facebook? Do you share to be part of a tribe? Or to support members of your tribe?  Is your social network full of like minded people? Do you stay quiet when you have questions? Is political discussion more polarised or is political disagreement avoided?

I think these are questions for all of us to consider.