Social Media and Social Proof

Arts and Culture

Modern culture as we know it is the end result of ceaseless, overlapping marketing campaigns. That sounds cynical and a touch Orwellian, but it’s true nonetheless. Our opinions are shaped by the media messages we’re bombarded with. We want to deny it. We hate admitting that we’re all products of outside forces, and not beings of pure free will. It’s all behavioral psychology, ultimately. The most obvious, and insidious, of these psychological forces is social proof.

The core concept is this: we accept things appear to be validated by others. It has been proven to be good, or useful, or true, based on social acceptance. When 4 our of 5 dentists recommend a toothpaste, that’s social proof in the form of expertise. Endorsement by some dentistry group or another certifies that authority figures approve. An attractive celebrity with perfect teeth endorsing said toothpaste creates an impression that we can look like them if we use that product.

Social Media and Social Proof

Social proof, of course, has nothing to do with facts. In the current social media environment, social proof seems to come down to “mob rules”. People brigade a movie on Rotten Tomatoes to give it bad reviews, because they have an ideological problem with what the movie represents. They’re trying to manipulate social proof. If they can force a low score on the film, it “proves” that it’s bad, and people won’t go to see it. The same logic applies to trending hashtags on Twitter, and stories that get liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook.

There’s an element of critical thinking involved, of course. I think that people need to be schooled on the concept of social proof, so they can recognize when they’re being manipulated. Being able to see how you’re being led to a conclusion, how expertise and populism are leveraged to create an illusion of benefit, ought to be a basic life skill. At the end of the day, though, humans are social animals. As long as going along with our friends, our peers, and the social norms seems relatively harmless, we’re going to do it so we can fit in.

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