Is social media good or bad for social unity?

Annenberg professors Sandra González-Bailón and Yphtach Lelkes reviewed all of the previous literature to determine what scholars have discovered to date.

It’s tempting to form an opinion on social media’s role in society based on intuition alone, but ultimately there is more than a decade of data available—to those who know how to interpret it. 

As scholars who both study social media and its effects on society, Annenberg School for Communication associate professors Sandra González-Bailón and Yphtach Lelkes are skilled in finding the trend amid millions of social media posts.

Sandra González-Bailón and Yphtach Lelkes
Annenberg School for Communication associate professors Sandra González-Bailón and Yphtach Lelkes. (Image: Annenberg School for Communication)

In a new paper in Social Issues and Policy Review, they take stock of the existing studies across multiple fields that interrogate social media’s effect on social cohesion, establishing what we know to date.

“Networks allow us to access and mobilize resources that would be out of reach in their absence: They create opportunities that would not exist if we were isolated or less connected. Social media have changed how we form and navigate networks, and how we organize and cooperate in moments of crisis,” says González-Bailón. “Public discourse is overwhelmingly focused on the negative consequences on this increased connectivity, but research shows that there are also positive outcomes.”

Social media has what is called a ‘window-opening’ and ‘mirror-holding’ effect. It allows us to see how others experience the world (window-opening) but also reflects back to us the goings-on within an area,” says Lelkes. “It also helps us see issues within our own borders that we may have previously ignored. The issue of police brutality in the United States may not have captured the public’s attention if not for social media.”

However, the flip side of their research shows social media’s ability to be socially divisive. “Research shows that social media discourse is dominated by a minority of users who are very vocal and more extreme in their views than the average person,” says González-Bailón. “This creates the illusion that social and political conflict is more generalized than it actually is, but this illusion is still real in its consequences—and what turns social media into such powerful communication platforms: it gives too much power to an unrepresentative few.”

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.