It may be a long time since social media lost its innocence. But, two decades after Facebook was founded, it can feel as though sharing political views, expressing solidarity or posting cathartic outpourings on personal accounts is an increasingly high-stakes game. This has been thrown into sharp relief by the Israel-Gaza war, with people shedding jobs and friends after making statements online.
Gone is any illusion that one’s followers form a neat echo chamber of like-minded humans. It may have felt like that back in 2015, when millions applied a rainbow wash over their profile pictures to support marriage equality, or in 2020, when a similar number Instagrammed a black square to show that black lives mattered. When it comes to issues surrounding the conflict in the Middle East, even within otherwise politically aligned groups, raw divisions have been exposed. They’re stirred up further by algorithms, ignorance (few of us are subject experts), disinformation and minds well primed for the polarising effects of the internet.
So would we be better off keeping our views off the stage of social media altogether? James Dennis, who has studied political expression online for 15 years, is struck by an increasing reluctance to get involved due to “reputational concerns”. Instead, people are becoming “what I describe as ‘listeners’, who use social media to consume political information but avoid forms of public political expression”.
Could this herald a reversion to type? After all, these networks originally attracted mass membership as lighthearted, practical ways to connect with friends and family. But then again, so much has changed. “We’ve had social media in our lives for about 20 years,” says Debbie Ball, data and society lecturer at the University of Westminster and King’s College London, who researches how platforms are designed to be persuasive and influence user behaviour. “We’re all … much more comfortable posting our views online.” She acknowledges, however, that writing about political issues can sometimes lead to dark places, funnelling users into a “whole ecosystem of bad actors spreading disinformation and political campaigning”. Most social media algorithms are programmed to optimise the spread of inflammatory content, “fuelling the maelstrom of online political debate and, despite what the dominant companies like Meta say, it’s not to champion freedom of speech, it’s all to encourage people to post more, create more content and to keep making money out of people’s data”.
In other words, posting about politics can draw disinformation into your feeds, as keywords are liable to be picked up by campaigning organisations and troll factories. You don’t even have to say anything yourself. “It only takes someone to repost something to further drift into a disinformation environment and get embroiled in something more divisive,” says Ball, whose own timeline has become studded with propaganda related to her posts. X, in particular, she points out, is now a “lax information environment with Elon Musk doing away with Twitter’s previous ban on political advertising, as well as sacking much of the moderation team”. All eyes are now on Threads, to see if its policy of deprioritising news does anything to slow the spread of conspiracy theories and the like.
Not that users are blind to the risks. When the Pew Research Center asked people across 19 countries about their attitudes towards social media in 2022, it found that a median of 84% believed “access to the internet and social media have made people easier to manipulate with false information and rumours”. Some 70% thought the spread of false information online was “a major threat, second only to climate change”. Even so, when others start posting on an issue, getting involved can be hard to resist. Analysis of data from Meta in 2015 found that people were more likely to alter their own profile pictures to support a cause if their friends did. This peer pressure was a greater factor than religion, politics or age.
Not everyone is susceptible. And, according to Dennis, rather than airing their views publicly, many people are now having discussions on private messaging apps – “namely WhatsApp, but also direct messaging on Snapchat and Instagram for younger audiences”. Users view these channels as “safe spaces where they can have challenging conversations with close contacts, such as partners, family members, or friends”. Recently, his research has focused particularly on young people, for whom “these spaces are incredibly helpful for testing out political ideas”.
Sometimes, though, even refraining from public posting can be interpreted as a political act: either you don’t care or worse, you’re concealing or are in denial about your own prejudices. That stance has met with its own backlash: Ball says she has noticed people coming out recently to declare “It’s OK not to post.”
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. Some people feel strongly that social media is a means of raising awareness about neglected issues, or showing support to those facing injustice. Campaigns and hashtags have at times made a difference, and prompted political shifts in the real world. But in an age of insidious algorithms and ineffective moderation, getting political on platforms that care more about making money than driving change may have to come with a health warning.
The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World by Max Fisher (Quercus, £20)
Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over by Julia Ebner (Bonnier, £22)
The Conspiracy Tourist: Travels Through a Strange World by Dom Joly (Little Brown, £22)