OPINION: Social media and the psychology behind its global impact

The 21st century has been dominated by the rise of the internet. In just a matter of years, phones went from clunky and basic to small, slim, powerful devices that can be carried around in one’s pockets. They have become a rapidly growing commodity, with consumers being able to get their hands on reasonably priced smartphones. With these technological advances came the rise of social media. Preceded by the World Wide Web, social media became a way for users to interact with each other. As social media became more commonplace in the public, it brought another successful industry for those looking to capture the attention of the internet. These people are influencers. Their tactics, designed in order to maximize their views, likes and attention have created a whirlwind of problems.

Influencers are those who are responsible for cultural developments and trends involved among social media culture. By definition, they are trend-setters. By increasing their reputation, they gain followers and viewership on their social media pages. Influencers, however, do not make their money off of just getting views but also off of advertising and sponsorships, acting as a business to maximize their dividend. According to Forbes, it is not enough for influencers to “just have followers.” Instead, influencers must increase their brand’s reputation by contributing to popular culture to help other content creators and their sponsorships. So, instead of being personal franchises, influencers and content creators work together to build trends that increase their own personal output. One way influencers do this is through fashion trends. According to the fashion industry expert Diba Jedo and a writer for fashionispsychology.com, the usage of leather became an “unexpected 2020 fashion trend driven by influencers and was quickly made to be a part of (consumers’) wardrobes.” By contributing to the image of fashion and marketing to the trend-setting leitmotif of consumerism, influencers created and contributed to the idea of the superficial “next best thing,” which changes frequently and will never stop as long as influencers can fill their bottom line.

In order to understand the authority effect that is present throughout influencer hubs, two The Roar staffers, Theodore Nguyen and Elias Panou, conducted a study involving 16 students from a class. Based on a 1950s similar experiment conducted by Solomon Asch, the students were divided into two separate sections and four separate groups. One section consisted of “false” participants while the other were “legitimate” participants. Those who were false were briefed ahead of time on their roles, which were to simply answer incorrectly uniformly, while legitimate subjects were left out of the loop. One of these groups consisted fully of legitimate people, serving as the control group, while the other three had a 3:1 ratio on false to legitimate subjects. All groups were given six questions to be read out loud on average, consisting of simplistic non-directive prompts to simulate the dissemination of information on social media.

Knowing the authority effect that influencers have over their followers, it is not surprising that many social media figures have crossed into the realms of politics. According to Frontiers, political influencers are what are known as opinion leaders, who “are characterized as people who interact with traditional mass media, deal with current issues, reprocess the information and pass them over to other members of their personal networks.” These influencers spread opinions through their calm demeanor and casual appearance, and do so to influence, attract and control the attention of media-savvy brands and businesses. In 2021, Ben Shapiro, an ultra-conservative political pundit and talk-show host of the “Daily Wire,” had a large following on Facebook after having “received more likes, shares and comments on Facebook than any other news publisher by a wide margin,” NPR reported. At the same time, Shapiro flashes a large net worth, which he accomplished through advertisements and endorsements on his public broadcasts. He and many other politicians like himself are responsible for the peddling of harmful rhetoric for making money.

The world of entertainment has grown vastly in the last decade. Entertainment-seekers went from having the world of digital content expand from computer and TV screens to small and slender hand-held phones. With these devices, consumers are able to join communities of peoples all around the world. Yet with all of this power at their fingertips, no responsibility was assumed. The rise of social media has caused many problems for consumers: the growth of superficiality and falsities, the pack-like effect of the authority principle creates communities of individuals rendered unable to think freely and the rampant growth of polarization and political radicalization among social media users.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the consumer base as “people who buy or use a particular product or service.” For influencers, their consumer base is anyone. Oftentimes, they will market their product, which is content, to specific groups of people, such as those politically inclined or interested in art. Consumers will watch anything that catches their attention and often will form communities either around the genre or around the content creator. Due to this nature, people over time may become obsessed with certain influencers or even build personalities based on them, resulting in making detrimental decisions. Consumption of media may leave people more susceptible to continuous marketing, which in turn could lead to bad financial decisions. In turn, consumers are also capable of mob harassment, where they could pressure influencers for more content or even turn to certain ideologies that align with their own. While influencers try to get more profit, consumers may cause undue stress on them for various reasons.

The Nielsen Norman group describes the authority effect as “a person’s tendency to to comply with people in positions of authority.” The false participants in The Roar’s study represented the people with positions of authority. In short, the results revealed a daunting number that should alert all consumers of social media content and entertainment. The “real” participants were thrown off by the presence of the 3:1 ratio of authority and answered the prompts incorrectly about 22.3 percent of the time. This effect frequently caused individuals to think incorrectly and conform to an incorrect logic, which has been seen in the presence of social media, where influencers have an assumed position of power over their consumer base. Using these numbers, it is not a far stretch that nearly a quarter of followers within popular influencer communities could be under the outcome of the authority effect, causing them to see things from the pro-influencer side more often.

The effect of political influencers on media consumers has been catastrophic. Due to influencers who spread their political rhetoric on social media sites, such as Youtube, Instagram and Twitter, political polarization has become rampant. According to the Brookings Institution, divisive and polarized social media content is responsible for an “influential role in political discourse, (in) intensifying political sectarianism.” Clearly, political influencers are causing a rise of polarization among consumers on social media, with the authority effect holding the smoking gun. Influencers who carry such an effect command and control their followers with their eye-catching and often radical content, causing negative outcomes. Consumers are drawn in and polarized, often espousing the same radical ideas their authority figures spread to them. Such explosive and rapidly spreading content has become instrumental in political debate, with controversial icons gaining speed with the help of online icons. For example, many who consumed that same content were inclined to vote for politicians such as Donald Trump with harmful views similar to that of divisive influencers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro and Alex Jones. Consumers are being radicalized at the hands of racy content shoved down their throats by flamboyant online figures.

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