‘Addictive loop’ of social media fuels hate speech, misinformation: study

“There are only two industries that describe their customers as ‘users,’ ” said Yale professor emeritus Edward Tufte. “Illegal drugs and software companies.”

New research proves his point: The more that “heavy users” of social media engage, the more automatic and unthinking their online posts become.

Over time, these heavy users become desensitized to the positive feedback — likes, shares and comments — that motivates other people.

As such, heavy users post information that new or infrequent users might consider inappropriate.

“They’re not just ignoring the likes, they’re also ignoring the consequences of posting, which is how misinformation starts to spread,” study co-author Ian Anderson, of the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said in a news release.

Researchers examined metrics from Instagram and Facebook to compare frequent social media users with infrequent or new users to see if social rewards (likes, shares, etc.) motivated the two types of users the same way.

They also looked at whether habitual posting on social media happens without social rewards.

“In other words, do these frequent users just post no matter if they are receiving likes or comments from their posting? Or are they posting just out of sheer habit?” Anderson said.

The research, published in the journal Motivation Science, revealed that social media users on Instagram and Facebook develop posting habits that vary depending on how often they use the platforms.

woman reading on cellphone
Habitual social media users often share information without thinking about the content or its impact.
Getty Images

People with a daily habit of use, they found, gradually shift from posting with a specific goal in mind to posting automatically, with little thought about the content or its potential impact (or lack thereof). That behavior often leads to a nearly “addictive” yearning to share content frequently.

Additionally, researchers discovered that social rewards such as likes increased engagement mostly among new or infrequent users, but had little to no effect on daily or habitual users.

Much of the way people employ social media, the researchers concluded, is based on habits formed over time.

“Given the design of social media sites, users form habits to automatically share the most engaging information regardless of its accuracy and potential harm,” Anderson and his co-authors wrote in an editorial published by UPI

“Offensive statements, attacks … and false news are amplified, and misinformation often spreads further and faster than the truth,” the authors added.

person typing hate speech on computer keyboard
Hate speech, misinformation and cyberbullying are rapidly amplified on social media platforms.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

But most social media platforms, the researchers contend, are designed to reward sharing content that’s already been shared, making outrage a marketable commodity.

Indeed, Facebook’s internal research has shown that the ability to distribute already-shared content with a single click fuels the spread of misinformation.

“Some 38% of views of text misinformation and 65% of views of photographic misinformation come from content that has been reshared twice, meaning a share of a share of a share of an original post,” the editorial authors wrote.

The researchers concluded that to address issues like misinformation, hate speech and mental health, social media companies must also reshape the structure and programming of their platforms to change the way habitual users interact with social media.

“Interventions that work for one type of user just don’t work for the other,” Anderson said. “There will have to be something really disruptive structurally on these social media sites to change the behavior of habitual users.”

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
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