The initial thought behind Facebook, as well as other social networks, was to connect people around the world and provide a platform for sharing diverse worldviews and ideas. And to many, this seemed like a democratic dream come true.
As time went by, however, enthusiasm has grown weaker, and it was replaced by a growing number of potential dangers. Virtual debates among strangers turned out to be less civil and a lot more hostile than in real life. Extremist worldviews flourished among networks of like-minded devotees that have come in touch via these digital channels.
And misinformation and smear campaigns prospered along with dangerous ideologies that have found its subjects. So, what changed over the past decade, and what are the underlying issues of present-day social networks?
Gradual Rise of the Threat
When social media first started to rise, the situation was significantly different than today. Social networks, such as MySpace, were platforms where users could create curated versions of themselves. But overall, there wasn’t much potential for sparking infectious outrage.
Things changed, however, with the rise of Twitter’s timeline and Facebook’s News Feed – regularly updated streams of users’ consciousness. To top it all off, soon came public metric systems of popularity – like and retweet buttons – and an algorithm that gives preference to content that generates most attention.
And shortly after, different ideologies and political propaganda made use of the newest upgrade, jeopardizing the democratic intent behind social networks.
The Society of the Online Spectacle
However, the real issue could be the way social networks have turned communication into performance. Communication is usually perceived as being a two-way street. But what happens once a magnifying glass is aimed at both sides of the street, with numerous spectators observing, commenting, and giving their input?
To explain this phenomenon, Mark Leary, an American psychologist, coined the word sociometer, which refers to an inner mental scale that constantly informs us of our social desirability. Our sociometer, being fueled with likes, retweets, and shares, has gradually replaced the notion of self-esteem, which used to occupy our private thoughts, and consequently, put our need to be viewed as desirable for everyone to see.
In this context, social networks have become arenas in which online avatars – each advancing their narrative – struggle for dominance, and collect social points.
The Issue of Moral Grandstanding
What is more, a recurring phenomenon that occurs in these public panels is moral grandstanding, which is a concept that refers to moral talk that people use when they want to boost their social cachet.
In other words, each person aims to either outdo others by using various tactics, often questioning the integrity of any person that disagrees with them or resorting to exaggerated displays of emotion that will garner them the necessary attention.
However, the greatest casualties in this social fight for the audience’s approval are truth and objectivity. Those that utilize moral talk tend to scrutinize every opinion that opposes theirs, hoping to ignite public outrage.
Anonymity Makes Everything Easier
Still, humans have evolved to manipulate, ostracize, and gossip. And we are easily enticed into competing in these social networks’ hunger games, even when we are aware of the cruelty and shallowness they often promote.
The common reasons that would prevent us from jumping on the condemnation train are undermined by the anonymity that social media enables – we don’t empathize because we don’t see people’s faces.
Nevertheless, social media transformed our lives from top to bottom as people have never been more connected than they are now. However, with the perks also came the dangers. The instant connection became a public performance. And platforms have made outrage into a trend that gives rise to ideas that are often devoid of factual knowledge and values, thus compromising its initial purpose.
 “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” The Atlantic [Online] Available at: www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/social-media-democracy/600763/