November 8, 2016: It happened. And just like that, everything is different out there. No matter your political views, it’s fair to say that the recent presidential election produced more lunacy and rancor than any other in recent memory — or ever, for that matter. One plausible explanation is that the two main candidates were unfavorable by unprecedented margins. But there’s another reason the 2016 election was one of the most excruciating ones ever: social media.
Thanks to the role of social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, this quickly became the first true social media election, and we found it impossible to unplug. However, the powerful influence of shares and tweets goes deeper than just how much time we spent on social platforms during (and after) the election. It’s the impact social media can have on our brains, emotions, and, ultimately, our behavior.
We like to think we are fairly rational and sensible beings, unable to be puppeteered by the internet, but neuroscientists are quickly unveiling how social media networks significantly affect our neural networks and motivate certain behaviors. One candidate in particular understood how to use this hook to his advantage, and built a campaign on rage instead of reason — garnering millions of supporters along the way. You might not have seen it coming, but the science of social media did.
Try this one on for size: In the 12 months preceding the 2016 election, the country collectively spent more than 1,284 years — yes, years — reading about Donald Trump on social media. That number is a third more than we spent reading about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton combined. It also doesn’t even take into account time spent reading about Trump on major news websites or watching news related to him on television.
Yet, it isn’t just about the amount of time he took up on social platforms that played such a major part in his yuuuge following. It’s more about what he did with that time and how he manipulated others to share, tweet, like, and support his rhetoric with surgical precision. Trump understood that the online social ecosystem does not rely on objective facts or reasoning to make impressions. There is something far more powerful that shapes our behaviors — emotions. And Trump’s campaign strategy of rousing strong emotions is the reason he continued to go viral on social media. It’s why we couldn’t unplug. We were addicted.
The addictive nature of social media isn’t an ambiguous concept. Through brain imaging studies, researchers have established the effects that social media exposure has on the brain. They have even noticed neural similarities between social media and substance addiction. As cognitive psychologist Paul Atchley explains, “We’re inherently social organisms [and] there’s almost nothing more compelling than social information.” It activates the brain’s reward system. We’re also hardwired to respond to novel sights or sounds. Therefore, the instant stimulation of a like or tweet activates our primitive impulse to respond to potential opportunities and threats. This, combined with the implicit promise of new social information, leads to excitement in the form of a dopamine release. It activates the brain’s reward system associated with maintaining our social reputation. It’s also a reaction not unlike those induced by addictive opioids, nicotine, or gambling.
Furthermore, the constant pull of incoming information undermines our ability to focus on a primary task. Imagine you’re working on a project. Think you can quickly check a text or Facebook notification, and then pick up where you left off? Think again. Every time our focus switches from one thing to another, the brain stumbles a bit, and requires time to get back to where it was before being distracted. It’s probably why in 2016, the average user logged nearly two hours per day on social platforms. That may not seem like a lot, but given that an ordinary person sleeps eight hours a night, that means social media is consuming close to one-eighth of our waking hours. When we tie it back to the election, that’s a brutal amount of time ingesting viral stories about candidates.
Another issue, as we know by now, is the tremendous amount of online fake news that circulated on social media. The only thing real about it was how quickly it went viral. In the final three months of the election campaign, the top performing fake news election stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets, including The New York Times, Huffington Post, NBC News, and the like. Of the 20 top performing fabricated stories preceding the election, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. The biggest headlines included one about Clinton selling weapons to ISIS and the other about the pope endorsing Trump. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of fallacies that were spewed during Donald Trump’s campaign speeches. These headlines became likes and shares and then became accepted beliefs by many. Too many. Whether it was fact or fiction, it didn’t matter.
Paul Horner, a 38-year-old producer of a Facebook fake news empire, knows a little something about creating viral content. He has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years, raking in an average of $10,000 a month from just one of his ad services. His most successful time was during this past election. In an interview, Horner explained that his business model was so successful because nobody, in terms of social media users, fact-checks anything anymore. “That’s how Trump got elected,” says Horner. “He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s really scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It is scary. Part of this problem is that in the silos of social media, a fake post looks identical to a real one. Unless you take the time to fact-check, there’s not much of a way to tell the difference. Social networks, Facebook in particular, also tend to create “echo chambers,” where the posts that users see the most are ones from like-minded friends and media sources. Similar to targeted advertising, we are fed information on most social networks based on our click history within these sites.
Knowing this, one would think that we would be more diligent about, or skeptical of, what we read on social media. Nope. Science writer and historian Michael Shermer explained in a 2010 Ted Talk that human beings are conditioned to believe, rather than to disbelieve. This is especially true when people feel vulnerable. During this election cycle, many Americans were angry, fearful, and felt threatened that their livelihood would be taken away due to a chronically dysfunctional government. It is rooted in the brain’s circuitry of defensive aggression to protect one’s own tribe of people. Enter Donald Trump, who captured imaginations and disregarded facts. Then sprinkle in the instant gratification that comes from sharing a social post. Fake news started spreading like wildfire.
The other piece of the equation that caused — and is still causing — so many Americans to buy into the online conspiracies is that social media has lessened our need to think. With so much information bombarding us online, researchers are finding that our ability for concentration, contemplation, and reflection is quickly dwindling. In a recent study published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface, scientists set out to investigate if online social networks help or hinder our intelligence. They created five artificial social networks made up of 20 volunteers each. Some of the volunteers were kept isolated on the social networks and others were in contact with the rest of their group. Next, researchers gave the participants a set of brainteasers to solve that were based on analytical reasoning.
They found that the more access to social connections a participant had, the better they were at giving the right answers more often. Was it because these participants were smarter? Not so much. They just had more opportunities to copy information from their friends on their social network. According to the report, the results showed that when these students had lots of connections with their peers, they could recognize where they had written down a wrong answer and could swap it for the right one.
This can be explained because our brains prefer to conserve energy, and therefore take the fastest route in figuring out the answer to a problem. Most of the time, this speed is beneficial. The danger arises when this sort of brain shortcut leads people to share an article that President Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS or that the pope endorsed Donald Trump, even though both of these sound bites are far from accurate.