Researchers led by a network scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently released results of a study that found people are more likely to “like” a comment or a post if they see that other people have “liked” it before them.
People would rather align themselves with a positive opinion than a negative one, even if the opinion they’re agreeing with is neither factual nor entirely representative of their own personal views, the authors suggest.
In the study, researchers monitored comments on a popular website for five months. They “liked” some comments, downvoted others, and, as a control, did neither for the rest of the comments. They found that not only did commenters tend to “like” the same comments they did, but also “liked” the comments they had downvoted. The researchers concluded that commenters can be manipulated to “like” certain posts, and that herd mentality is something that must be taken into account when assessing the popularity of Internet comments.
In the past, we touched briefly on the drawbacks of relying too heavily on internet comments and social media when it comes to drafting policy. This research would seem to support the notion that turning to Twitter, Facebook, and other blogs to gauge public opinion can be risky. Should policy discussions on social media, then, be completely disregarded?
Some would argue that public feedback is valuable regardless of the venue through which it is delivered. Even when social media encourages bandwagon mentality, public opinion is still being expressed to some degree – and through it, policymakers can get an idea of what people really want to see, even if the public’s knowledge of any given issue might be limited.
The answer isn’t simple, but it seems a middle ground must be found when it comes to social media. There are several questions policymakers must ask themselves: Is what we’re seeing on Twitter a true reflection of public opinion? What information do I have about this issue that the public does not, and how can that information impact the decisions that must be made? Have we done a proper analysis of the information we’ve gotten through social media?
What are your thoughts on this research? Do you think it’s something that should be taken into account when governments engage with the public through social media? Let us know in the comments.