Dangers of Homophily in Social Media

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Feeling Connected

Social comparison theory suggests that people use others as a measuring stick when judging themselves. For example, one study found that people who looked at the profile pictures of attractive users were more dissatisfied with themselves and their appearance afterwards. It’s also been found though that users attempt to avoid such upward comparisons and instead, seek out individuals worse off than themselves, which helps their self esteem (Greitmeyer, 2016).

Individuals who feel isolated by their interests or beliefs, may seek out connections with those with similar beliefs on social media. It’s referred to as homophily, or the love of the same (Dehghani et al, 2016). According to one study, homophily in moral purity is a excellent predictor of potential connections on social media (Dehghani et al, 2016).

It’s been found that users with more Facebook friends have better well-being. Then when the individual’s new friends like and respond to posts, their self esteem grows (Greitmeyer, 2016). So, homophily can be beneficial for helping users find more connections and friends, who will then agree with their posts and like and comment on them. For more on the benefits of homopily, see my previous post here.

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Algorithms and Cognitive Biases

Algorithms take a look at user profiles and activity. They then can make predictions and suggestions for like minded groups to join as well as other users with the greatest connection potential (Elkabani & Aboo Khachfeh, 2015). Facebook for example, uses an algorithm for determining what users see in their newsfeed. In the end though, users tend to purposely seek out confirmation of their beliefs and avoid clicking on or seeking out opposing information. This confirmation bias then leads to further polarization (Bessi et al, 2016).

Interestingly, introduction to different types of political posts on social media has been tied to increased moderation, tolerance, and political knowledge. Unfortunately, those with the most strongly held beliefs are unlikely to read or view those posts that may challenge their beliefs (Bode, 2016). So while homophily may lead to positive feelings, it can also keep individuals from learning and growing. It can also lead to lower levels of tolerance of those who are different.

Homophily can lead to bullying, extremism, and has even been linked to terrorism. It’s easy to feel powerful enough to bully or terrorize when the individual feels safe and surrounded by like minded individuals. For example, someone may attack a friend’s political views on Facebook, secure in the knowledge that their other friends will be on their side and argue with them. Interestingly, while terrorists use social media in order to normalize the idea of violence, it actually isn’t how most people are recruited. Social media does however, help terrorists to create credibility and keep their message out there (Huey, 2015).

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Sadly, attempts at debunking incorrect or incomplete information that may be spread by a particular group, have proven fruitless. It’s difficult enough to get users to actually read dissenting information, but even when they do, there is the backfire effect to contend with (Bessi et al, 2016). Sadly, there is no absolute solution.

One way however, is to education people on the backfire effect so that they can be more aware of it when it occurs. Then they can make a conscious effort to seriously consider new information, even if it challenges their previously held beliefs. Another way to help it would be to keep areas like politics, science, and conspiracies out of the algorithms. That way, individuals are more likely to be exposed to competing ideas. Meanwhile, social media as well as individuals can encourage fact checking.

As far as terrorists on social media, political jamming has been named as a potential solution. This method, used to prevent terrorists from being able to make themselves and their messages seem cool, requires the creation of satirical memes. It uses knowledge of popular culture to mock terrorists, and therefore make them less appealing (Huey, 2016).

Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Vicario, M. D., Puliga, M., Scala, A. et al. (2016). Users polarization on Facebook and YouTube. PLoS, 11(8), 1–24.

Bode, L. (2016). Pruning the news feed: Unfriending and unfollowing political content on social media. Research and Politics, 3(3), 1–8.

Dehghani, M., Johnson, K., Hoover, J., Sagi, E., Garten, J., Parmar, N. J., & … Graham, J. (2016). Purity homophily in social networks. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(3), 366–375. doi:10.1037/xge0000139

Elkabani, I., & Aboo Khachfeh, R.,A. (2015). Homophily-based link prediction in the facebook online social network: A rough sets approach. Journal of Intelligent Systems, 24(4), 491–503. doi:http://dx.doi.org.library.capella.edu/10.1515/jisys-2014-0031

Greitemeyer, T. (2016). Facebook and people’s self-esteem: The impact of the number of other users’ Facebook friends. Computer in Human Behavior, 59, 182–186.

Harris, K. M., & Aboujaoude, E. (2016). Online friendship, romance, and sex: Properties and associations of the Online Relationship Initiation Scale. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(8), 487–493.

Huey, L. (2015). This is not your mother’s terrorism: Social media, online radicalization, and the practice of political jamming. Journal of Terrorism Research, 6, 1–16.