A protest in Philadelphia in May 2020 over the killing of George Floyd and systematic racism in US history.
A misguided but widely spread Facebook poll drumming up conspiracy theories about George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

It’s June 2020. The streets host surging protests against systematic racism in the US, and polls show a majority of Americans in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement at the protests’ foundation. However, social media metrics show at least seven of the ten top trending posts on major social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter are highly critical of Black Lives Matter.

The mismatch seems unusual, except we don’t need to look far back to see other serious misrepresentations of the social world on social networking platforms. Another example began in May 2020. Polls showed a majority of Americans trusting medical experts on coronavirus, agreeing with coronavirus-related restrictions, and in fear of going to work with the virus still spreading. Nonetheless, posts about government overreach and misinformation skeptical of the coronavirus threat were top trends on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and even TikTok. Drummed up and networked through connecting with these posts, in the midst of lockdown people staged “Reopen protests” that are widely covered by the media (including this author).

These mismatches signal important and often forgotten factors that distort social media’s image of public life in America. Social media are not simply mirrors of society. Social media platforms, content, and algorithms influence societies and societies influence them, in continuous cooperation and struggle.

Social media metrics and feeds today offer limitless data and indications of what society is expressing today, but the science on new media shows this data is systematically skewed. They may show us only what we want to see, over-represent the ideas of entities who pay more or game the system, under-represent social groundswells developing offline, and leave some people or ideas out altogether. While they may reflect some of what people are talking about, social media insights can be more like funhouse mirrors than clear reflections.

Cloud Gate mirror sculpture in Chicago
Social media can distort our understandings of society unless we understand its nature and design.

While social media buzz does not simply mirror society, insights found on social media are not fully disconnected from real social life either. Understanding the nature and design behind the trends and even individual posts across social networking sites (SNS’s) can have great value in understanding networked communication, including impacts of social networking on social life, and human social influences on SNS’s. One goal of this book is to guide the reader and participant through these complex layers of understanding.

A relationship of mutual influence

How are we influenced by social media? How is social media influenced by us? And why have this book title represent humans as social media? The swirl of life immersed in social media begins and ends with ourselves as active human players in it. We produce social media content, we consume it, and we create and influence social media algorithms. Human practices and tendencies feed the systems that produce feeds for us in turn. In the end, our own careful human interpretation of these feeds will produce knowledge about the mutual influence humans and social media have on one another.

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Humans R Social Media, Winter 2022 Open Textbook Edition Copyright © 2021 by Diana Daly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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