Have you ever felt yourself being swayed in one direction because of something that you read online?
If you answered yes, you may have been a victim of online groupthink.
In my Strategic Management class last week, we learned about the various sources of common decision biases and traps. One of the sources that we talked about was groupthink. According to an article from Northwestern’s School of Education and Public Policy, groupthink is a concept that was created to “describe extreme consensus seeking tendencies in decision-making groups.” Irving L. Janis wrote that groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.” The concept has also been proven through many experiments, including the Asch conformity experiments. While groupthink is a popular concept that we have all experienced or have seen others experience in our physical lives, does the same concept of groupthink manifest itself online?
A study published in Science validates the idea of online groupthink. The results of the study showed that many people are swayed by positive opinions others post online. Through a five-month experiment that was conducted on a news-aggregation website, MIT professor Sinan Aral found that the comments that had a positive initial vote received a 25% higher average rating from other site users than the comments that did not have an initial positive vote. However, the comment average rating was not affected by an initial down vote. In other words, people are more likely inclined to favor something if they have seen that others have favored it as well. Whether we realize it or not, the strong influence of online groupthink is why online marketers use likes, reviews, and ratings. It is because people are swayed to buy a product or service when they can see that other people have and are happy with their decision.
The fundamental way that we receive news generates online groupthink. For example, your news feed on sites like Facebook contain updates and information from your friends and pages that you willingly followed. They also help us form opinions and ideas. Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker: “Our acquaintances…are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” Social media and the internet has made it easier to connect with others than ever before, and this interconnectivity has sparked a new form of groupthink that we are all susceptible to.
This TED talk by Jon Ronson does a great explaining this new form of groupthink. Ronson says that the Internet and “Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine” and that we “surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling.”
Jon Ronson’s thought is further echoed by Uptin Saiidi, who wrote:
“..in an age where my Google search results are different than yours, Facebook is only likely to show content that validates your existing beliefs – because, it wants you to click, like and share.”
CNBC, Multimedia Journalist
Upon further reflection on my own experiences, it’s true that a lot of the news that I read on my social media feeds are swayed heavily in one direction. They are presented in similar ways, and many of the opinions that I am exposed to are rather similar. More interestingly, I find myself trusting and sometimes agreeing with commentary on issues that I don’t know too much about. This bandwagon bias is real, and it’s dangerous.
The article writes: “Bandwagon bias is a form of groupthink. It’s a cognitive bias that makes us believe something because other people believe it.” It can also make us “lose our capacity for empathy and for distinguishing between serious and unserious transgressions.” Reputation Revolution writes: “The environment and opportunity for (temporary) anonymity cause the masses to fall victim to groupthink and apparently take great joy in their own perceived superiority while making allegations which would otherwise be unthinkable.” As a result, online bullying and shaming on sites like Facebook and Twitter have become a norm. In fact, according to the Cyber Bullying Research Center, “34% of the students from a 12,000 sample of middle school students across the U.S. reported experiencing cyber bullying.”
Online groupthink also has an immense influence on politics. According to New York Times author Claire C. Miller, internet companies “magnify the effect [of polarization] by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to [them].” As a result, social media users are hesitant on sharing their political views because of the fear of marginalization, social isolation or online harassment. One Pew study found that in “online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.” Furthermore, a study conducted by University of Chicago Professor Cass Sunstein found that “people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others,” and that “both liberal groups and conservative groups [were made] significantly more homogeneous — and thus squelched diversity” of thought after being affirmed by those who have the same political ideologies. Evidence of this was seen in the recent Presidential election.
Online groupthink and the bandwagon bias can limit our ability to think independently and work efficiently. If we limit the way we learn about issues and receive news, we are limiting ourselves from being able to form clear opinions and thoughts. As the world becomes more interconnected, we need to be mindful of where we are receiving news from, and we should also be aware of underlying biases in the things that we read. Online groupthink should not cloud our judgment- our thoughts and opinions should always be our own.