Escaping social media conformity: Can we still think for ourselves?

Written by Nika Videtic.
Edited by Robbie Kirk.

I would like to believe that diversity of opinion is a notion that many of us still value in our life. Discussing different themes with multi-cultural people helps to elevate our thinking to another level. Take a simple example like when we grab a coffee with a friend or a colleague and start a conversation about a topic that awakens our curiosity. After the conversation is finished, we should feel our intellect creating a space for growth and greater insight. However, when we disagree or do not understand another person’s answers, we have to be willing to ask questions that challenge the other person’s position. Questioning what we think we know helps us uncover what more we ought to learn regarding ideas we didn’t before. Diversity of opinion is a fundamental tenant in preserving intellectual originality whilst facilitating and changing the thinking dynamics in peer discourse. 

I do however fear that living in the digital era has made us less willing to embrace opposing opinions. COVID-19, along with other political and social troubles, has called for greater engagement through online platforms and the pressure to concede to one side has never felt greater. The outcome unfortunately has created an environment where neither unity nor perspective holds any position. This makes me question the extent that social media is able to influence social conformity and make us relent our ability to think freely for ourselves. 

The upshot of social media is that it allows us to stay connected when isolation and distancing keep us socially disengaged. The downside however is that we become subsumed into the world of constantly checking whether our opinion measures up to the expectations of other people. Copy, paste, retweet and re-share take their toll on our mind and may prevent us from preserving our own take on a given matter. Our reactions to the content often prove to be the deciding factor which determines whether we tip towards conformity or not.I am not suggesting that when we agree with a certain viewpoint that we are automatically conforming to the message. We may simply agree on a viewpoint because we are informed enough to rationally draw our own conclusion and therefore resonate with the message before us. However, when we lack enough objectivity and our own reasoned perspective, the balance threatens to tip towards conforming. 

We can draw on Kelman’s Social Influence Theory (1958) to help us understand on a psychological level the three main types of conformity that bring around changes in our attitude and actions. The first is compliance: when we conform to the majority but disagree privately in the hopes of attaining approval and avoiding disapproval from others in our community. The second is internalisation: when we conform both on a public and private level because the adopted view becomes aligned with our own value system. The third is identification: when we conform to the expectations of a social role and we wish to maintain an identifying relationship with another individual or a group. 

If we apply these levels of conformity to online content, it makes it easier for us to decide for ourselves whether we engage in social media conformity or not. It also means that if we make a conscious effort to underpin the way our mind analyses and processes information, we can take a step back and our reactions can also be re-adjusted to fit our own opinions. This helps liberate our thinking and give us the courage to adopt a different position in a community that may only tolerate one.   

Let’s consider the example of voting. The candidate that people tend to choose is the one that most closely aligns to their political and social beliefs on how a country should be governed. Many people become passionate about expressing their political opinions on social media and promote their content as a way to propagate their ideal candidate. The number of people that appear to agree with each other’s perspectives on a specific candidate may in turn increase the pressure on others to politically align themselves with the same candidate. The widespread popular acceptance of the candidate plays an even greater role in influencing others to choose the candidate that is considered as a socially acceptable option. However, when we express a different choice of candidate that is not perceived in the same positive light, we become a social deviation to others. At this point, if social conformity prevents people from asking the reasons behind another person’s way of thinking, diversity of opinion is practically non-existent.    

Engaging in the scrutiny of other people’s packaged ideals and opinions may make us feel smaller and even unseen when we fear expressing our own. As a result, we compromise our own voice and sense of individuality as a way for us to preserve the status quo. The consequences of conforming further inhibit the option for others to be able to change or re-evaluate their own stance. A more pragmatic approach would be to engage in debates and problem-solving dialogues to stimulate one another’s curiosity and analysis.

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay 

Let’s consider the example of a post on feminism. One person proclaims themselves as a feminist and the other person does not. The party rejecting to call themselves a feminist is not intending to disregard the notion of gender equality. Rather, it may be the case that certain people simply do not identify with every core belief that a group of people consider themselves to embody. A person who is not a feminist may disagree that women still live in a world that inherently makes them a victim and disadvantages their opportunities more than their male counterparts. From this understanding, some may prefer to call themselves individualists and choose what they agree and disagree with in feminism. This allows us to carefully consider one another’s perspectives without making unwarranted assumptions of what an individual actually stands for. If we still don’t understand their perspective, the option to ask further questions and challenge their position is still ours. Diversity of opinion is in this way much more readily secured.     

In this article, it is not my intention to determine how one should engage in online discourse and content sharing. However, I wish to encourage the view that embracing challenging questions and different perspectives helps to take us out of our comfort zone and be more open-minded. We don’t have to respond online to show others that we are thinking actively. Our intellect can also be positively elevated when we engage in private conversations. To escape social media conformity, all we have to do is observe and think critically when we see different online content. As I have mentioned in the voting example, if you see your friends posting an Instagram story on your social media backing a political candidate, will you do the same because you genuinely agree with the candidate’s policies? Even if you do not post, do you stop and consider why that candidate may be a good fit to govern the country? Or do you merely agree and share the content in the fear of being called out for daring to think differently? As General George S. Patton once said, ‘if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.’

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